1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Menshikov, Alexander Danilovich

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MENSHIKOV, ALEXANDER DANILOVICH, Prince (1663?–1729), Russian statesman, was born not earlier than 1660 nor later than 1663. It is disputed whether his father was an ostler or a bargee. At the age of twenty he was gaining his livelihood in the streets of Moscow as a vendor of meat-pies. His handsome looks and smart sallies attracted the attention of François Lefort, Peter's first favourite, who took him into his service and finally transferred him to the tsar. On the death of Lefofta in 1699, Menshikov succeeded him as prime favourite. Ignorant, brutal, grasping and corrupt as he was, he deserved the confidence of his master. He could drill a regiment, build a frigate, administer a province, and decapitate a rebel with equal facility. During the tsar's first foreign tour, Menshikov worked by his side in the dockyards of Amsterdam, and acquired a thorough knowledge of colloquial Dutch and German. He took an active part in the Azov campaigns (1695-96), and superseded Ogilvie as commander-in-chief during the retreat before Charles XII. in 1708, subsequently participating in the battle of Holowczyn, the reduction of Mazepa, and the crowning victory of Poltava (June 26, 1709), where he won his marshal's baton. From 1709 to 1714 he served during the Courland, Holstein and Pomeranian campaigns, but then, as governor-general of Ingria, with almost unlimited powers, was entrusted with a leading part in the civil administration. Menshikov understood perfectly the principles on which Peter's reforms were conducted, and was the right hand of the tsar in all his gigantic undertakings. But he abused his omnipotent position, and his depredations frequently brought him to the verge of ruin. Every time the tsar returned to Russia he received fresh accusations of peculation against “his Serene Highness.” Peter's first serious outburst of indignation (March 1711) was due to the prince's looting in Poland. On his return to Russia in 1712, Peter discovered that Menshikov had winked at wholesale corruptions in his own governor-generalship. Peter warned him “for the last time” to change his ways. Yet, in 1713, he was implicated in the famous Solov'ey process, in the course of which it was demonstrated that he had defrauded the government of 100,000 roubles.[1] He only owed his life on this occasion to a sudden illness. On his recovery Peter's fondness for his friend overcame his sense of justice. In the last year of Peter's reign fresh frauds and defalcations of Menshikov came to light, and he was obliged to appeal for protection to the empress Catherine. It was chiefly through the efforts of Menshikov and his colleague Tolstoi that, on the death of Peter, in 1725, Catherine was raised to the throne. Menshikov was committed to the Petrine system, and he recognized that, if that system were to continue, Catherine was, at that particular time, the only possible candidate. Her name was a watchword for the progressive faction. The placing of her on the throne meant a final victory over ancient prejudices, a vindication of the new ideas of progress. During her short reign (February 1725-May 1727), Menshikov was practically absolute. On the whole he ruled well, his difficult position serving as some restraint upon his natural inclinations. He contrived to prolong his power after Catherine's death by means of a forged will and a coup d'état. While his colleague Tolstoi would have raised Elizabeth Petrovna to the throne, Menshikov set up the youthful Peter II., son of the tsarevich Alexius, with himself as dictator during the prince's minority. He now aimed at-establishing himself definitely by marrying his daughter Mary to Peter II. But the old nobility, represented by the Dolgorukis and the Golitsuins, united to overthrow him, and he was deprived of all his dignities and offices and expelled from the capital (Sept. 9, 1727). Subsequently he was deprived of his enormous wealth, and he and his whole family were banished to Berezov in Siberia, where he died on the 12th of November 1729. See G. V. Esipov, Biography of A'. D. Menshikov (Rus.) (St. Petersburg, 1875); N. I. Kostomarov, T he History of Russia in the biographies of her great Men (Rus.), vol. ii. (St Petersburg, 1888, £=:'o.); R. Nisbet Bain, The First Romanovs (London, 1905); ibid. The Pupils of Peter the Great, ch. 2"4 (Westminster, 1897).

(R. N. B.)

  1. The Solov'evs were three brothers ostensibly employed by the Russian government to ship corn from Russia and sell it at Amsterdam. As a matter of fact they were at the head of a combination for selling Menshikov's corn in preference to the corn of the Russian government and the bulk of the proceeds went into Menshikov's pockets. From 1709 to 1711 they had exported almost as much of Menshikov's corn as of that of the government, though the export of any corn from Russia, except in account of the Treasury, was a capital offence. The affair dragged on from. 1713 to 1716, when the examination of the Solov'evs' books, and the subsequent application of torture, revealed the fact that the Solov'evs had systematically robbed the Treasury of 6751000 roubles (1 rouble then = 5s.) and had accumulated a fortune of half a million. For full details see Nisbet Bain, The jirst Romanovs, pp. 327-329.