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Prominent Russians: Sergei Witte

June 29, 1849 - March 13, 1915

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Count Sergei Witte was a highly influential Russian policy-maker. He was a witness of the abolition of serfdom and the first Russian revolution. A supporter of Emperor Alexander III, he was highly influential during the reign of Nicholas II. As a member of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire, he was a devoted adherer of the absolute monarchy. Witte was as a man with a wide range of vision and outstanding moral qualities.

Origins, youth and the pre-governmental period

Sergei Witte was born into the family of a provincial civil servant in Tiflis (now Tbilisi, Georgia) on 29 June 1849. His father descended from a Lutheran Baltic German family and his mother from the Dolgoruki princes, Peter the Great’s supporters.

Witte’s father was a nobleman of the Pskov Region, the northwestern part of the Russian Empire. Originally a Lutheran, he later turned to Orthodox Christianity and served as head of the government property department. Witte’s mother, Ekaterina Andreevna Fadeeva, was the daughter of Privy Councilor of the Caucasus. His grandmother was Princess Helene Dolgoruki.

Sergei Witte always outlined his connection to the Dolgoruki family with great pleasure and disliked mentioning his father’s foreign origins.

“Everybody in my family was deeply devoted to the monarchy and I inherited this feature of character,” Witte used to say.

Sergei Witte spent his childhood on his grandfather’s estate. He received a common education for a child of the nobility of the time. He entered a Tiflis gymnasium. But he took more interest in music, fencing and riding than in studying. Due to his misappropriate behavior and lack of diligence in his studies Witte was forced to reenter a gymnasium in another city. He finished his gymnasium in Chisinau and received his school certificate with positive grades.

In 1866 Witte entered the physics and mathematical faculty of Novorossiysk University in Odessa. As a student, Witte took little interest in politics. He didn’t pay any attention to the most influential trends of the time like political radicalism and the philosophy of atheistic materialism – the ideas that dominated the minds’ of the contemporary youth.

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“I have always opposed these tendencies. Due to my education I remained devoted to the monarchy. Besides that I was a religious person,” Witte said.

The future Chairman of the Council of Ministers finished university in 1870. After graduating he had to choose between the career of a scientist or that of a civil servant. The last variant prevailed due to material reasons. He worked in the Odessa General Governor’s secretariat for two years. But suddenly his plans changed.

At the time the Russian Empire was developing a fast railway system. Witte got into this endeavor by accepting a position at a private railway enterprise. He spent the greater part of the 1870s and 1880s in this occupation, particularly in the administration and management of various railroad lines. As a candidate of mathematical sciences he began as a cashier in a ticket office, then gradually worked his way up, studying the business in the smallest details. He fulfilled the duties of controller, assistant machinist, assistant station-master and then station–master.

His career developed rather smoothly but for one episode. In 1875, not far from Odessa, a railway crash occurred causing the death of a number of people. Witte was in charge of that part of the railway line. But he redeemed himself during the 1877-1878 Russian–Turkish War by arranging the troops shift properly and skillfully. It was at this time that he was first noticed by the Tsar’s family, especially by the Grand Duke (Prince) Nikolai Nikolayevich (brother of Emperor Alexander I).

Through his work in private railway enterprises Witte gained an invaluable experience in management. He had a pragmatic approach towards all business problems. By the mid-1880s Sergei Witte was well known among the railway community due to his achievements as well as the articles he published about the railway.

In 1880 Sergei Witte was appointed the head of the Operations Department of the South Western Railway System of the Empire and settled in Kiev. In 1886 he was appointed to head the South Western System.

A successful career brought him financial stability. As head of the railway system, he earned above 50 thousand rubles a year; a much greater sum of money than a minister earned at that time.

Political career

Witte did not take any interest in the political life of the country. But the situation changed dramatically when Emperor Alexander II the Liberator was killed on 1 March 1881. Witte was deeply concerned by the tragedy. He suggested fighting terrorists with their methods, killing them the way they killed others. He became a member of the newly established Holy Drygina (Brigade) – a secret community fighting terrorists. But he wasn’t successful in his mission to fight terrorists abroad. Later Witte remembered this moment in his biography with embarrassment.

But Witte was not satisfied with his position as a successful railway businessman. His active and ambitious nature desired further achievements. He started carefully and consistently preparing his shift to governmental structures. Witte was successful in achieving his goal thanks to his acquaintances and a lucky coincidence of circumstances.

Witte’s theoretical works on railway development began drawing attention. He was noticed by the Finance Minister Ivan Vishnegradsky, who took great interest in his works.

In 1888 near the small of village Borki, the Tsar’s train derailed, killing many people but luckily leaving the Tsar’s family alive. Not long before this accident, Sergei Witte had had a dispute with the Railway Minister, in which he stated that the Tsar’s trains were driven at inadmissible speeds. Alexander III was a witness to the discussion and soon after the crash promoted Witte to head of the newly established railway department in the finance ministry.

Sergei Witte’s political career skyrocketed. In 1892 he became the Head of the Railway Ministry. In 1893 Witte became the Minister of Finance. The future Prime Minister of the Russian Empire was never scrupulous about the methods he used in achieving his goals. Witte’s predecessor in the Finance Minister’s position was forced to leave office due to discrediting rumors. Sergei Witte was one of the instigators of these rumors.

Finance Minister

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After being appointed Finance Minister Sergei Witte became one of the most influential figures in the Imperial political arena. He was very successful as a Minister. He implemented a number of reforms that helped stabilize the financial sector and turn the economy toward a more capitalistic way of development. He was an active supporter of industrialization, declaring that he was capable of driving the Empire to an elite club of highly developed industrial countries. Witte was a definite supporter of capital inflow and goods export. He called for protectionist measures towards national production. Witte considered that the country should be economically more active in the world market, especially in the Far East. He thought that the development of the country should go in a different direction than other countries. But the benefits of capitalism were obvious to him.

Following major reforms the Finance Minister clearly foresaw the need to develop a strong currency. In 1894-1895 Witte was able to stabilize the ruble. In 1987 he implemented a reform of the national currency. The ruble was provided with the gold standard and remained absolutely stable until WWI. It resulted in a great capital inflow to the country and as a consequence to railway and industrial development in the Russian Empire. Managing the budgetary deficiency Witte increased taxes. He entered the state monopoly for the trade of alcohol. This resulted in a quarter of all incomes of the Imperial treasury.

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In 1896 Witte carried out successful negotiations with a Chinese representative, gaining the consent of China for the construction of the Chinese-East Railway, which would expedite the building of a railway to Vladivostok. The success of the negotiations was promoted by a bribe to the Chinese representative.

Witte knew human weaknesses well and impudently bribed the people necessary to him. As the Minister of Finance he had the broadest possibilities for the distribution of monetary grants, granting of privileges, concessions, appointments to lucrative posts and he didn’t hesitate to use them. Also he was one of the first to understand the force of the printed word and used newspapers for carrying out his plans. Russian and foreign journalists worked for him. Under his command brochures and solid works were published. The press conducted campaigns to discredit opponents and advance Witte’s plans.

Witte’s reforms were an obvious success and his political career reached one of its peaks. But one episode almost ruined it. He married Matilda Lisanevich in 1892. The year before Witte forced his future wife to divorce her husband. For this divorce Witte paid a considerable compensation and even threatened Matilda’s husband with administrative measures. In view of Witte’s devoted love to the woman the marriage brought him familial happiness. But he was put in an ambiguous position; a high ranking politician on one hand and being married to a divorced Jewish woman on the other. He was about to quit but Emperor Alexander III, after learning the details of the situation, said that the marriage only increased his respect and trust in Sergei Witte. His career was saved but Matilda Lisanevich was never admitted to high society.

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Though Witte was always in the great favor of Emperor Alexander III, who highly praised him for his frankness, absence of servility and independence of judgments, the Finance Minister was never properly accepted in high society, that frowned on Witte's sharpness, angularity, lack of aristocratic manners, southern reprimand and bad French pronunciation. For a long time he was a favorite character of jokes in the salons of St Petersburg.

In 1894 the last Emperor of the Russian Empire Nicholas II ascended to the throne. Unlike Alexander III Witte’s relations with the new Emperor were controversial. Moreover Nicholas II evidently disliked the influential Finance Minister. Historians consider Witte’s mentor tone towards Emperor Nicolas II, his constant references to Alexander III’s great reign, his independence and obstinacy as the main reasons of the misunderstanding between the Minister of Finance and the Emperor. Witte’s attitude sharply contrasted with the flattering speeches of the court. Witte was compared in society with a Great Vizier that ignored the Monarch. But due to his professional skills he kept his office.

The financial crisis at the beginning of the 20th century weakened Witte’s position. In 1903 due to an intrigue of the Minister of Interior, Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve, the Emperor dismissed Witte from his post and appointed him Chairman of the Committee of Ministers. But it was rather a modest position that nothing really depended on.

After the political defeat Sergei Witte decided to restore his position. He used every chance to prove his necessity to the country.

Chairman of the Council of Ministers

In 1904 the Russian Japanese war broke out. What started as a “small and victorious war” turned into a disaster for the Empire and its economical and political expansion in the Far East. A first revolution then inflamed the country in 1905. Under these complicated circumstances Tsar Nicholas II was forced to appoint Sergei Witte as an ambassador to the peace talks with Japan in Portsmouth, US. The ex-finance minister proved to be a talented diplomat. He managed to end the hopelessly lost war with minimum losses, having achieved for Russia “almost a decent peace treaty." He was honored with a count title for it. This peace negotiation brought him back to top politics.

Due to the revolution Count Witte insisted on the reform of the political system of the country. After a long period of hesitation the Tsar agreed to a reform of the Ministerial Council. The document was published and became known as the Manifesto of the 17th of October.

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Witte pointed out the necessity of immediate reforms, underlining that natural development would inevitably lead Russia to a constitutional Monarchy. The Tsar agreed with these arguments and suggested preparing the corresponding manifesto. The monarchical power was limited to elective representative institution. For the first time in many centuries the population received political freedoms. Literally the day after the manifesto was released there was a question as to whether it was possible to consider it as the constitution. Though it wasn’t a constitution, it was defiantly a precedent.

The manifesto made a huge impact on internal policy. Its substantive provisions already could not be revoked. Russia entered a new phase of political development.

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Witte had been put in charge of the Council of Ministers in the most difficult period of the first Russian revolution. His political career reached its absolute peak.

His actions as head of the office cooled the country and ended the revolution. He started the major vital reforms declared in the Manifesto. But due to his disagreements with the Emperor he was forced to resign at the end of April 1906. But Witte was fully confident that he had resolved the main problem - providing political stability to the regime. His resignation practically turned out to be his career’s end. But Witte did not depart from political activity, remaining a member of the State Council.

When WWI began Witte, foretelling that it would be the end for the monarchy, declared his readiness for a peace making mission and negotiations with Germany. But he became mortally ill at that moment.

Count Sergei Witte died on 28 February 1915 at the age of 64. His political legacy remained controversial for a long time, but he was undoubtedly one  of the key figures in the political arena at the end of 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century.

Written by Leonid Laparenok, RT

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