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Sergey Witte

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Sergey Witte

Sergei Witte
Sergei in 1905
1st Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire
In office
6 November 1905 – 5 May 1906
Monarch Nicholas II
Preceded by New Post
(Himself as Chairman of the
Committee of Ministers
Succeeded by Ivan Goremykin
Chairman of the Committee of Ministers
In office
Monarch Nicholas II
Preceded by Ivan Nikolayevich Durnovo
Succeeded by Post Abolished
(Himself as Prime Minister)
13th Finance Minister of Imperial Russia
In office
30 August 1892 – 16 August 1903
Preceded by Ivan Vyshnegradsky
Succeeded by Eduard Pleske
14th Transport Minister of Imperial Russia
In office
February 1892 – August 1892
Preceded by Adolf Gibbenet
Succeeded by Apollon Krivoshein
Personal details
Born Sergei Yulyevich Witte
(1849-06-29)29 June 1849
Tiflis, Russian Empire
Died 13 March 1915(1915-03-13) (aged 65)
Petrograd, Russian Empire
Nationality Russian
Alma mater Novorossiysk University
Religion Russian Orthodox

Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte (Russian: Серге́й Ю́льевич Ви́тте, Sergey Yul'evich Vitte) (29 June [O.S. 17 June] 1849 – 13 March [O.S. 28 February] 1915), also known as Sergius Witte, was a highly influential policy-maker who presided over extensive industrialization within the Russian Empire. He served under the last two emperors of Russia.[1] He was also the author of the October Manifesto of 1905, a precursor to Russia's first constitution, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister) of the Russian Empire.

Family and early life

Witte's father Julius Witte came from a Lutheran Baltic German (originally Dutch) family and had been member of the knighthood of the City of Pskov. He converted to Russian Orthodoxy upon marriage with Witte's mother Yekaterina Fadeyeva. Sergei Witte's maternal grandfather was Andrei Mikhailovich Fadeyev, a Governor of Saratov and Privy Councillor of the Caucasus, his grandmother was Princess Helene Dolgoruki, and the mystic Helena Blavatsky was his first cousin. He was born in Tiflis, Tiflis Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Tbilisi, Georgia) and raised in the house of his mother's parents.

He finished Gymnasium I in Kishinev[2] and commenced studying Physico-Mathematical Sciences at the Novorossiysk University in Odessa in 1866 graduating top of his class in 1870.[3]

Witte had initially planned to pursue a career in academia with the aim of becoming a professor in the Department of Theoretical Mathematics at Novorossiysk University. His relatives took a dim view of this career path as it was considered unsuitable for a noble at the time. He was instead persuaded by Count Vladimir Bobrinskii, then Minister of Ways and Communications, to pursue a career in the railways. At the direction of the Count, Witte undertook 6 months of on the job training in a variety of positions on the Odessa Railroad in order to gain a practical understanding of railroad operations. At the end of this period he was appointed chief of the traffic office.[3]

Witte worked for the greater part of the 1870s and 1880s in private enterprises, particularly the administration and management of various railroad lines in Russia, especially in the Ukraine, where he was in charge of the Odessa Railway. After a wreck on the Odessa Railway in late 1875 cost many lives, Witte was arrested and sentenced to four months in prison. However, while still contesting the case in court, Witte's Odessa Railway made such extraordinary efforts towards the transport of troops and war materials in the Russo-Turkish War that he attracted the attention of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, who commuted his term to two weeks.

In 1879, Witte accepted a post in St. Petersburg, where he met his future wife. He moved to Kiev the following year. In 1883, he published a paper on "Principles of railway tariffs for cargo transportation", in which he also spoke out on social issues and the role of the monarchy. In 1886, he was appointed manager of the privately held Southwestern Railways, based in Kiev, and was noted for increasing its efficiency and profitability. Around this time, he met Tsar Alexander III, but came into conflict with the Tsar's aides when he warned of the danger in using two powerful freight locomotives to achieve high speeds for the Royal Train. His warnings were proven in the October 1888 Borki train disaster, which resulted in the appointment of Witte to the position of Director of State Railways.

Political career

Career with the Finance Ministry

Witte served as Russian Director of Railway Affairs within the Finance Ministry from 1889 to 1891; and during this period, he oversaw an ambitious program of railway construction which included the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Witte also obtained the right to assign employees based on their performance, rather than political or familial connections. In 1889, he published a paper titled "National Savings and Friedrich List", which cited the economic theories of Friedrich List and justified the need for a strong domestic industry, protected from foreign competition by customs barriers. This resulted in a new customs law for Russia in 1891, which spurred an increase in industrialization in Russia towards the turn of the century.

Tsar Alexander III appointed him acting Minister of Ways and Communications in 1892.[3] This gave him control of the railroads in Russia and the authority to impose a reform on the tariffs charged. However, in late 1892, Witte (whose first wife had died in 1890) chose to remarry. The marriage was a scandal, as Witte's second wife, Matilda Ivanovna (Isaakovna) Lisanevich, was not only a converted Jew, but was also divorced, and Witte had come into conflict with her husband while she was still married. The scandal cost Witte many of his connections with the upper nobility.

At August 1892, Witte was appointed to the post of Minister of Finance, a post which he held for the next 11 years. During his tenure, he greatly accelerated the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. He also paid much attention to the creation of an educational system to train personnel for industry, in particular, the creation of new "commercial" schools, and was known for his appointment of subordinates by their academic credentials instead of political connections. In 1894, he concluded a 10-year commercial treaty with the Empire of Germany on favorable terms for Russia. In 1895, he established a state monopoly on alcohol, which became a major source of revenue for the Russian government. In 1896, he concluded the Li–Lobanov Treaty with Li Hongzhang of the Qing Empire. One of the rights secured for Russia was the construction of the China Eastern Railway across Manchuria, which greatly shortened the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway to its projected eastern terminus at Vladivostok. However, following the Triple Intervention, Witte strongly opposed the Russian occupation of Liaodong Peninsula and the construction of the naval base at Port Arthur. In 1897, Witte undertook a major currency reform to place the Russian ruble on the gold standard. This led to increased investment activity and an increase in the inflow of foreign capital. Witte also enacted a law limiting working hours in enterprises in 1897, and reformed commercial and industrial taxes in 1898.[4] In October 1898, he addressed a memorial to the throne, calling for the reform of the peasant community. This resulted in laws abolishing collective responsibility, and facilitated the resettlement of farmers onto lands on the outskirts of the Empire. Many of his ideas were later adopted by Pyotr Stolypin. In an attempt to keep up the modernization of the Russian economy Witte called and oversaw the Special Conference on the Needs of the Rural Industry. This conference was to provide recommendations for future reforms and the data to justify those reforms. From 1903, Tsar Nicholas II transferred Witte to the position of chairman of the Committee of Ministers, a position he held until 1906.[3] While officially a promotion, the post had no real power, and Witte's removal from the influential post of Minister of Finance was engineered under the pressure from the landed gentry and his political enemies within the government. However, one historian states that Witte's opposition to Russian designs on Korea caused him to resign from government in 1903.[5]

Diplomatic and political career

Witte returned to the forefront in 1905, however, when he was called upon by the Tsar to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War.[3] He was sent as the Russian Emperor's plenipotentiary and titled "his Secretary of State and President of the Committee of Ministers of the Emperor of Russia" along with Baron Roman Rosen, Master of the Imperial Court of Russia[6] to the United States, where the peace talks were being held.

Witte is credited with negotiating brilliantly on Russia's behalf. Russia lost very little in the final settlement.[3] For his efforts, Witte was created a Count.[7] But the loss of the war would perhaps spell the beginning of the end of Imperial Russia.

After this diplomatic success, Witte was brought back into the governmental decision-making process to help deal with the civil unrest following the war and Bloody Sunday riots of 1905. Even during the Treaty of Portsmouth negotiations, he had written to the Tsar stressing the urgent need for political reforms at home. Witte was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers, the equivalent of Prime Minister, in 1905. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Witte advocated the creation of an elected parliament, the formation of a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of a Bill of Rights through the October Manifesto. Many of his reforms were put into place, but they failed to end the unrest. This, and overwhelming victories by left-wing political parties in Russia's first elected parliament, the State Duma, forced Witte to resign as Chairman of the Council of Ministers on 22 August 1906. Witte continued in Russian politics as a member of the State Council but never again obtained an administrative role in the government.

In spite of worsening health, Witte remained active into World War I, desperately urging Russia not to enter the conflict, warning that Europe faced calamity if Russia became involved. The advice went unheeded, and he died shortly afterwards due to a brain tumor at his home in St. Petersburg. His funeral was held at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.

Witte's reputation was burnished in the West when his memoirs were published in 1921. The original text of these memoirs are held in Columbia University Library's Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture.[1]


See also

Popular culture depictions



  • Davis, Richard Harding, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. (1905). OCLC: 21581015
  • Harcave, Sidney. (2004). ISBN 978-0-7656-1422-3 (cloth)
  • Stanford University Press.
  • Korostovetz, J.J. (1920). London: British Periodicals Limited.
  • Witte, Sergei. (1921). Doubleday.

External links

  • Portsmouth Peace Treaty, 1905-2005
  • Memoirs of Count Witte
  • The Museum Meiji Mura—peace treaty table on display
  • [1]


Political offices
Preceded by
Adolf Gibbenet
Transport Minister
February 1892 – August 1892
Succeeded by
Apollon Krivoshein
Preceded by
Ivan Vyshnegradskiy
Finance Minister
Succeeded by
Eduard Pleske
Preceded by
Ivan Durnovo
Chairman of the Committee of Ministers
Succeeded by
as Prime Minister
Preceded by
as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers
Prime Minister of Russia
6 November 1905 – 5 May 1906
Succeeded by
Ivan Goremykin

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