Soldier and statesman; favorite of Peter I.
Menshikov rose from humble origins to become the most powerful man in Russia after the tsar. Anecdotes suggest that his father was a pastry cook, although in fact he served as a noncommissioned officer in the Semenovsky guards. Alexander served in Peter’s own Preobrazhensky guards, and by the time of the Azov campaigns (1695–1696) he and Peter were inseparable. Menshikov accompanied Peter on the Grand Embassy (1697–1698) and served with him in the Great Northern War (1700–1721), rising through the ranks to become general field marshal and vice admiral. His military exploits included the battles of Kalisz (1706) and Poltava (1709), the sacking of Baturin (1708), and campaigns in north Germany in the 1710s. At home he was governor-general of St. Petersburg and president of the College of War.
The upstart Menshikov had to create his own networks, making many enemies among the traditional elite. He acquired a genealogy which traced his ancestry back to the princes of Kievan Rus and a dazzling portfolio of Russian and foreign titles and orders, including Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Prince of Russia and Izhora, and Knight of the Orders of St. Andrew and St. Alexander Nevsky. Menshikov had no formal education and was only semi-literate, but this did not prevent him from becoming a role model in Peter’s cultural reforms. His St. Petersburg palace had a large library and its own resident orchestra and singers, and he also built a grand palace at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland. In 1706 he married Daria Arsenieva (1682–1727), who was also thoroughly Westernized.
Menshikov was versatile and energetic, loyal but capable of acting on his own initiative. He was a devout Orthodox Christian who often visited shrines and monasteries. He was also ambitious and corrupt, amassing a vast personal fortune in lands, serfs, factories, and possessions. On several occasions, only his close ties with Peter saved him from being convicted of embezzlement. In 1725 he promoted Peter’s wife Catherine as Peter’s successor, heading her government in the newly created Supreme Privy Council and betrothing his own daughter to Tsarevich Peter, her nominated heir. After Peter’s accession in 1727, Menshikov’s rivals in the Council, among them members of the aristocratic Dolgoruky clan, alienated the emperor from Menshikov. In September 1727 they had Menshikov arrested and banished to Berezov in Siberia, where he died in wretched circumstances in November 1729.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bushkovitch, Paul. (2001). Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Hughes, Lindsey. (1998). Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.