Sergey Yulevich Witte

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Count Sergey Yulyevich Witte (June 29, 1849 – March 13, 1945) was an important figure in late Tsarist Russia. He was a keen advocate of Russian modernization and the first constitutional Prime Minister of the Empire.

Childhood and early career

Born in Tbilisi, his father was of Dutch ancestry and directed the agricultural department in the office of the governor general of the Caucasus. His mother came from a high ranking family of the Russian aristocracy engaged in state service. Witte’s childhood in the Caucasus was a happy one. Following his successful career as a student of mathematics at the Novorossiysky University at Odessa, Witte thought of entering an academic career. Instead, he followed the advice of a family friend, the minister of communications, and entered the railway administration. It was the beginning of a career that brought Witte to the heart of Imperial politics and finance. After a period in the chancellery of the governor general of Odessa and Bessarabia (1871-74), Witte studied railway administration in the Odessa Railway at the Odessa office of the Ministry of Communications. He led a disciplined, orderly life, imposed partly by family poverty and partly by an urge to succeed. By the time of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) he had already risen to a position in which he controlled the entire traffic passing to the front along the lines of the Odessa Railway. At one critical point he devised a novel system of double shift working to overcome delays on the line.

Witte showed his freedom from bureaucratic prejudice by appointing men of diverse nationalities and backgrounds such as Jews, Poles and Ukrainians as his subordinates and by cultivating favourable press conditions. His economic acumen was shown in his collection and use of railway statistics and in the implementation of an effective freight tariff whereby he lowered freight rates and increased revenue.

Minister for Finance

In 1889 Witte was invited to establish a railway department in the Ministry of Finance. He advanced rapidly and became in quick succession Minister of Communications. And Minister of Finance (August 1892). Far reaching plans for the economic development of the Russian Empire formed the body of Witte’s policy. He aimed at developing native entrepreneurial activity and to remove restrictions on Russia’s economic growth. Using the full power of the State, Witte unfolded a vast range of activity: A remodeled state bank made capital available to industry; Russian steamship companies and nautical and engineering schools were established; savings banks were encouraged; company law was reformed; and The Ruble was made convertible. Witte was also instrumental in raising large loans from investors in France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany to finance Russian industrialization.

Witte deployed his greatest energy in stimulating railway building, particularly the Trans-Siberian Line. He saw it not only as a means to bring urban progress to the countryside but also as an economic stimulus in itself, as a link between European and Asiatic Russia, and as a way of making Russia a power that straddled and held hegemony over west and east. For almost a decade ‘the Witte system’ enjoyed success, but at the turn of the century international uncertainty reduced the flow of foreign loans to Russia, and strikes and peasant unrest in Russia revealed that the population would no longer tolerate the reduced living standards that Witte’s policies entailed. Moreover, power agricultural interests who were wary of Witte’s industrialization policies made their influence felt in the court. His relationship with Emperor Nicholas II, who was also wary of Witte and his talents, were strained. In August 1903 Witte was removed from the Ministry of Finance and appointed to the largely decorative position of Chairman of the Committee of Ministers.

He had to look on in impotence as the government blundered the Russo-Japanese War, but he was to prove very useful to the government in 1905 and 1906. In July 1905 he was appointed chief negotiator for the peace with Japan. He obtained unexpectedly favourable terms for Russia, but his achievement did not make him any more popular.

Prime Minister

At a political level, Witte, though he detested constitutionalism in any form, used his influence to persuade the Tsar to issue the October Manifesto of 1905, which promised to grant a measure of representative government to Tsarist Russia and therefore bring the Russian Revolution of 1905 to a close. No less important was Witte’s role as Prime Minister of the new government, in organizing the repression of all the forces of disruption in the autumn and winter of 1905-1906.

Witte also proved instrumental in concluding arrangements in 1906 with a group of European bankers for a series of loans that restored Russian finances, which were in a state of virtual collapse through the effects of defeat in the Far East and the widespread revolts of 1905.

This was Witte’s last opportunity to serve the state. He was forced to resign the premiership in April 1906, having lost what little confidence the Tsar had in him. Witte never returned to office, and his efforts to influence policy were ineffectual. Thus, in the summer and winter of 1914-1915 he vainly opposed Russian entry into World War I and was sympathetic to peace feelers put out by the German government through Witte’s own German banker.

He died on March 13, 1915, embittered and dispirited, foreseeing disaster for the Tsarist Empire. Witte’s reputation was at first eclipsed through the collapse of Tsarism, but he is now appreciated as an extremely important figure in late Tsarist Russia for his drive to modernize a backward Empire.

Further Reading

Mehlinger, Howard D. and Thompson, John M., Count Witte and the Tsarist government in the 1905 revolution (London, 1972)
Harcave, Sidney, Count Sergei Witte and the twilight of imperial Russia: a biography (London, 2004)