November 16, 2018

Aleksashka in the Halls of Power

Aleksashka in the Halls of Power

In 1714, the British Royal Society, that is, the academy of sciences of Britain, accepted Alexander Danilovich Menshikov into its ranks. The letter informing him of this was sent by no less a personage than Isaac Newton: 

To the Most Powerful and Honorable Lord Mr. Alexander Menshikov, Prince of the Roman and Russian Empires, Lord of Oranienburg, Chief Counselor of His Majesty the Tsar, Marshal, Ruler of Conquered Lands, Knight of the Order of the Elephant and of the Highest Prussian Order the Black Eagle, etc., Isaac Newton sends his greetings. Whereas it has long been known that the Emperor, his Majesty the Tsar, has furthered very great advances in the arts and sciences in his kingdom, and that he has been particularly aided by your administration not only in military and civil affairs but also in the dissemination of literature and science, we were all filled with the greatest joy.

This, of course, was a bow in the direction of Tsar Peter I, who by then had already become a mighty ruler and, after his victory in the Battle of Poltava, was clearly winning the Great Northern War against Sweden. 

Could little Aleksashka, who as a child is said to have sold meat pies on the streets of Moscow, possibly have imagined how high his star would rise? This nimble lad might have dreamed of finding himself a good master, of making some money, establishing his own business, buying a house… If he had been born a century earlier, that is probably what would have happened – simple folk could aspire to nothing higher. But the Petrine era, with its unexpected twists and turns, changed everything. The Tsar, vehemently hating everything about “Old Russia,” elevated those favored by his Royal Will and set them against the aristocracy. Peter surrounded himself with European adventurists, Russians of low birth, shipwrights, construction engineers and soldiers of fortune.

On the streets of Moscow, young Menshikov drew the attention of one of Peter’s confidants, the Swiss François Lefort, who took him on as a servant. Peter spent a lot of time at Lefort’s home, where there was plenty of Western-style revelry. At Lefort’s, there was a lot of drinking and dancing, and one could see European women, residents of the German Settlement, the foreign section of Moscow. It was Lefort who brought Peter together with his first love, the German Anna Mons. In this raucous, slovenly European house, Peter noticed the cheerful, sprightly Aleksashka and took such a liking to him that the young man was soon included in the Tsar’s own band of merrymakers. 

This was the start of Menshikov’s fantastic career. Whatever the Tsar did, Menshikov was by his side. He commanded forces during the siege of Azov – for which he won praise, despite the lack of any particular success. Then the former street vendor set out with the Tsar on the Great Embassy – the diplomatic trip to Europe. He and Peter worked as joiners, learned shipbuilding, visited anatomy theaters, browsed museums and wandered the streets of Western cities, comparing them with Moscow, which did not benefit from the comparison. Unlike the boyars who had come on the trip, not hiding their aversion to Western life, Menshikov liked it immensely. Furthermore, Aleksashka proved to have a gift for languages and soon was able to carry on lively conversations in German and Dutch, earning him even greater approval from the Tsar. 

Menshikov took part in all of Peter’s boisterous merrymaking. In England, the very country that would later make Menshikov a fellow in their academy, Peter and his entourage, staying in the home of Admiral Benbow, wrecked the house completely with their revelry. A description of the damage indicated that the paint on the walls was cracked, the windows had been smashed out of their frames, the stoves and stove pipes were broken and the floor boards were pulled up. The iron fence enclosing the garden had been displaced. A bed’s silk upholstery was in shreds and a dressing table was broken. A brass poker, a pair of tongs, an iron screen and a shovel were destroyed; the wallpaper was soiled and 14 Dutch wicker chairs were broken. A large Turkish rug was ruined and eight feather beds, eight pillows, 12 pairs of flannelette blankets were damaged and 20 paintings were seriously marred and their frames smashed. In the garden, the earth was scarred from jumping and “from the doing of various things.”

There is no doubt that the future fellow of the Royal Society was among the first to rut the garden paths and ruin the paintings.

The rebellion of the streltsy(the riflemen charged with guarding the Kremlin) prompted an urgent return to Moscow, and the fun-loving Aleksashka, without batting an eye, himself chopped off the heads of the condemned men led out onto Red Square.

Alexander Menshikov
Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, circa 1716-20

After this, Menshikov was everywhere that Peter went – at the war against Sweden, studying plans for new schools, at the construction of St. Petersburg, on the ship wharves, at diplomatic receptions. 

However, the point at which the English academicians decided to honor Alexander Danilovich with their attention was not a particularly good time for the all-powerful favorite. He was mired in minor skirmishes with Swedish troops and could not manage any victories. The Tsar, of course, remembered that several years before it was Menshikov who had commanded the troops that had destroyed the Swedes in the battle at the village of Lesnaya, “the Mother of the Battle of Poltava,” and nine months later had bravely fought outside Poltava, risking his life every moment. 

Now it seemed that fortune had turned her back on Aleksashka. And other troubles emerged. Peter, who had always trusted his favorite, understood that Menshikov had a tendency toward thievery and had more or less looked the other way. But in 1715 such gross malfeasance came to light that the Tsar’s patience reached its limit. An investigation was undertaken, and no one knew how it would come out.

Nonetheless, Aleksashka survived, saved, most likely, by the support of Tsaritsa Catherine, who never forgot that she, a former laundress from the Baltics, owed her acquaintance with the Tsar to Menshikov. The misappropriation was forgiven and the Tsar’s favor was preserved.

Alexander Danilovich was destined to live on after the death of the Tsar and to help his widow, Catherine I, stay in power until her death, and to try to curry favor with her heir, the young Emperor Peter II (Peter I’s grandson from his first marriage), whom Menshikov had convinced Catherine to betrothe off to his own daughter, Maria. 

But this is when Aleksashka’s luck ran out. When Catherine died, competing courtiers, led by the powerful Dolgoruky clan, convinced Peter II not to marry Maria -- whom he did not like in any case -- and to pledge himself instead to Catherine Dolgoruky (Peter and Catherine never married; Peter died of smallpox on what was to be his wedding day). In addition, they convinced him to exile Menshikov and his family to Siberia, which he did in 1727. The street urchin turned servant turned prince and academician was consigned to grief and poverty in exile, in Beryozov, where he watched both his wife and daugther perish. 

During the last two years of his life (he died in 1729), Menshikov behaved with courage and dignity. Did he ever look back on the days when he had sold meat pies on the streets of Moscow, reveled with the Tsar, fought battles and decorated his elegant palace? Before sending the former favorite into exile, Peter II stripped him of all his Russian medals, and then, on the road a coachman overtook the unfortunate fellow and demanded that he hand over his foreign medals as well. The next coachman demanded that Menshikov and his family move from the carriage they were riding in onto uncovered wagons. The title of British academician, however, could not be taken away by a spiteful tsar. 

This article was originally published in the November/December 2005 issue of Russian Life magazine.

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