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Sergei Witte Sergei Witte – Russiapedia Politics and society Prominent Russians


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Sergei Witte

Sergei Witte

Sergei Witte, the son of Christoph Witte, was born in Tiflis , Georgia , on 29th June, 1849. Sergei was raised on the estate of his mother’s parents. His grandfather was Andrei Mikhailovich Fadeyev, a Governor of Saratov and his father was the director of the agricultural department of the Caucasus. (1)

Witte was not initially a good student at school. However, once at Novorossiysk University in Odessa , studying mathematics, his attitude changed. "I began to take life seriously for the first time… I began to strengthen my character, began to become my own man and have been so ever since." (2)

The death of his father seemed to only increase the energy he put into his studies. His biographer, Sidney Harcave , points out: "Sergei does not exaggerate the change that took place, from a feckless youngster into a responsible young man, driven by ambition, determined to use his talents to achieve whatever goals to set for himself. He would soon show that he had an iron will, an amazing capacity for work coupled with an equally amazing capacity to learn, be in school or on the job." (3)

As a young man Sergei Witte had contracted syphilis and the "disease had devoured his nose". He had it replaced with a wax one, and according to one member of the royal family in the summer he would wear "a cap with a long bill, presumably to protect the wax nose from the sun". (4)

On the advice of Count Vladimir Alekseyevich Bobrinsk , then Minister of Ways and Communication, he began a career in the railroads. Witte was appointed chief of the traffic office of Odessa Railways. However, he was blamed for a train accident in 1875 that cost many lives. Witte was arrested and sentenced to four months in prison. However, he was recognised as a great organiser and in 1888 he was appointed as Director of State Railways. Tsar Alexander III recognised his ability and in 1889 appointed him as Director of the Department of Railway Affairs. (5)

In 1892 Witte became romantically involved with Matilda Ivanovna Lisanevich who was married and a converted Jew. After her divorce she married Witte. This created a terrible scandal and he was shunned by many members of the nobility. However, he retained the confidence of the Tsar and he remained in the government. According to Witte he had convinced the Tsar "that… a country without a powerfully developed manufacturing industry could not be great". (6)

Sergei Witte: Minister of Finance

In 1893 Witte was appointed as Minister of Finance. Witte combined his experience in the railway industry with a strong interest in foreign policy. He encouraged the expansion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and organized the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Witte also devalued Russia’s currency to promote international trade, erecting high tariffs to protect Russian industry, and placing Russia on the gold standard giving the country a stable currency for international dealings. (7)

Witte also played an important role in helping to increase the speed of Russia’s industrial development. He realised that the skills needed for rapid industrial growth could not be found in Russia. Foreign engineers were encouraged to work there, and Witte relied on foreign investors to supply much of the money to finance industrial growth. "This strategy was highly successful and by 1900 Russia was producing three times as much iron as in 1890, and more than twice as much coal." (8)

However, Witte still believed Russia had not industrialized fast enough: "In spite of the vast successes achieved during the last twenty years (i.e. 1880-1900) in our metallurgical and manufacturing industry, the natural resources of the country are still underdeveloped and the masses of the people remain in enforced idleness… To the present epoch has fallen the difficult task of making up for what has been neglected in an economic slumber lasting two centuries." Witte insisted that unless this growth took place Russia would be "politically impotent to the degree that they were economically dependent on foreign industry." (9)

Sergei Witte believed in the need for political reforms to go with this economic growth. This resulted in him making powerful enemies, including Vyacheslav Plehve , Minister of the Interior, who favoured a policy of repression. The two men disagreed on the issue of industrialization."Witte envisioned a Russia in which the autocracy coexisted with industrial capitalism, Plehve a Russia in which the old regime lived on, with the landed nobility holding a place of honor, a regime that had no place for Jews, whom he considered a cancer on the body politic." (10) In August, 1903, Plehve passed on documents to Tsar Nicholas II that suggested Witte was part of a Jewish conspiracy. As a result Witte was removed as Minister of Finance. (11)

On 28th July, 1904, Plehve was killed by a bomb thrown by Egor Sazonov on 28th July, 1904. Plehve was replaced by Pyotr Sviatopolk-Mirsky , as Minister of the Interior. He held liberal views and hoped to use his power to create a more democratic system of government. Sviatopolk-Mirsky believed that Russia should grant the same rights enjoyed in more advanced countries in Europe. He recommended that the government strive to create a "stable and conservative element" among the workers by improving factory conditions and encouraging workers to buy their own homes. "It is common knowledge that nothing reinforces social order, providing it with stability, strength, and ability to withstand alien influences, better than small private owners, whose interests would suffer adversely from all disruptions of normal working conditions." (12)

1905 Revolution

In June, 1905, Witte was asked to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War . The Nicholas II was pleased with his performance and was brought into the government to help solve the industrial unrest that had followed Bloody Sunday . Witte pointed out: "With many nationalities, many languages and a nation largely illiterate, the marvel is that the country can be held together even by autocracy. Remember one thing: if the tsar’s government falls, you will see absolute chaos in Russia, and it will be many a long year before you see another government able to control the mixture that makes up the Russian nation." (13)

Emile J. Dillon , a journalist working for the Daily Telegraph , agreed with Witte’s analysis: "Witte… convinced me that any democratic revolution, however peacefully effected, would throw open the gates wide to the forces of anarchism and break up the empire. And a glance at the mere mechanical juxtaposition – it could not be called union – of elements so conflicting among themselves as were the ethnic, social and religious sections and divisions of the tsar’s subjects would have brought home this obvious truth to the mind of any unbiased and observant student of politics." (14)

In October, 1905, the railwaymen went on strike which paralyzed the whole Russian railway network. This developed into a general strike. Leon Trotsky later recalled: "After 10th October 1905, the strike, now with political slogans, spread from Moscow throughout the country. No such general strike had ever been seen anywhere before. In many towns there were clashes with the troops." (15)

Witte saw only two options open to the Trar; "either he must put himself at the head of the popular movement for freedom by making concessions to it, or he must institute a military dictatorship and suppress by naked force for the whole of the opposition". However, he pointed out that any policy of repression would result in "mass bloodshed". His advice was that the Tsar should offer a programme of political reform. (16)

Nicholas wrote in his diary: "Through all these horrible days, I constantly met Witte. We very often met in the early morning to part only in the evening when night fell. There were only two ways open; to find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force. That would mean rivers of blood, and in the end we would be where had started. The other way out would be to give to the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have laws conformed by a State Duma – that of course would be a constitution. Witte defends this very energetically." (17)

Grand Duke Nikolai Romanov , the second cousin of the Tsar, was an important figure in the military. He was highly critical of the way the Tsar dealt with these incidents and favoured the kind of reforms favoured by Sergei Witte: "The government (if there is one) continues to remain in complete inactivity… a stupid spectator to the tide which little by little is engulfing the country." (18)

On 22nd October, 1905, Sergei Witte sent a message to the Tsar: "The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. Freedom must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution. The government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. The government must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state and not endeavour to protect this or that type of government. There is no alternative. The government must either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or it must relinquish it to the elementary forces to tear it to pieces." (19)

Later that month, Leon Trotsky and other Mensheviks established the St. Petersburg Soviet . On 26th October the first meeting of the Soviet took place in the Technological Institute. It was attended by only forty delegates as most factories in the city had time to elect the representatives. It published a statement that claimed: "In the next few days decisive events will take place in Russia, which will determine for many years the fate of the working class in Russia. We must be fully prepared to cope with these events united through our common Soviet." (20)

Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia and these events became known as the 1905 Revolution . Witte continued to advise the Tsar to make concessions. The Grand Duke Nikolai Romanov agreed and urged the Tsar to bring in reforms. The Tsar refused and instead ordered him to assume the role of a military dictator. The Grand Duke drew his pistol and threatened to shoot himself on the spot if the Tsar did not endorse Witte’s plan. (21)

Sergei Witte
Sergei Witte

On 30th October, the Tsar reluctantly agreed to publish details of the proposed reforms that became known as the October Manifesto . This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally it announced that no law would become operative without the approval of the State Duma . It has been pointed out that "Witte sold the new policy with all the forcefulness at his command". He also appealed to the owners of the newspapers in Russia to "help me to calm opinions". (22)

These proposals were rejected by the St. Petersburg Soviet : "We are given a constitution, but absolutism remains… The struggling revolutionary proletariat cannot lay down its weapons until the political rights of the Russian people are established on a firm foundation, until a democratic republic is established, the best road for the further progress to Socialism." (23) The Tsar blamed Witte for this and wrote in his diary: "As long as I live, I will never trust that man (Witte) again with the smallest thing." (24)

On hearing about the publication of the October Manifesto, Father Georgi Gapon returned to Russia and attempted to gain permission to reopen the Assembly of Russian Workers of St Petersburg . However, Sergei Witte refused to meet him. Instead he sent him a message threatening to arrest him if he did not leave the country. He was willing to offer a deal that involved Gapon to come out openly in support of Witte and condemn all further insurrectionary activity against the regime. In return, he was given a promise that after the crisis was over, Gapon would be allowed back into Russia and he could continue with his trade union activities. (25)

The Tsar decided to take action against the revolutionaries. Trotsky later explained that: "On the evening of 3rd December the St Petersburg Soviet was surrounded by troops. All the exists and entrances were closed." Leon Trotsky and the other leaders of the Soviet were arrested. Trotsky was exiled to Siberia and deprived of all civil rights. Trotsky explained that he had learnt an important political lesson, "the strike of the workers had for the first time brought Tsarism to its knees." (26)

Georgi Gapon kept his side of the bargain. Whenever possible he gave press interviews praising Sergei Witte and calling for moderation. Gapon’s biographer, Walter Sablinsky , has pointed out: "This, of course, earned him vehement denunciations from the revolutionaries… Suddenly the revolutionary hero had become an ardent defender of the tsarist government." Anger increased when it became clear that Witte was determined to pacify the country by force and all the revolutionary leaders were arrested. (27)

The Duma

The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. A British journalist, Maurice Baring , described the members taking their seats on the first day: "Peasants in their long black coats, some of them wearing military medals… You see dignified old men in frock coats, aggressively democratic-looking men with long hair… members of the proletariat… dressed in the costume of two centuries ago… There is a Polish member who is dressed in light-blue tights, a short Eton jacket and Hessian boots… There are some socialists who wear no collars and there is, of course, every kind of headdress you can conceive." (28)

Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto . Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers. At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. The Tsar rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma. (29)

In April, 1906, Nicholas II forced Sergei Witte to resign and asked the more conservative Peter Stolypin to become Chief Minister. Stolypin was the former governor of Saratov and his draconian measures in suppressing the peasants in 1905 made him notorious. At first he refused the post but the Tsar insisted: "Let us make the sign of the Cross over ourselves and let us ask the Lord to help us both in this difficult, perhaps historic moment." Stolypin told Bernard Pares that "an assembly representing the majority of the population would never work". (30)

Peter Stolypin

Sergei Witte was now ostracized from the Russian establishment. In January 1907 a bomb was found planted in his home. The investigator Pavel Alexandrovich Alexandrov proved that the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, had been involved. Witte continued in Russian politics as a member of the State Council but had little power and used his time to write his memoirs.

Elections for the Second Duma took place in 1907. Peter Stolypin , used his powers to exclude large numbers from voting. This reduced the influence of the left but when the Second Duma convened in February, 1907, it still included a large number of reformers. After three months of heated debate, Nicholas II closed down the Duma on the 16th June, 1907. He blamed Lenin and his fellow-Bolsheviks for this action because of the revolutionary speeches that they had been making in exile. (31)

Members of the moderate Constitutional Democrat Party (Kadets) were especially angry about this decision. The leaders, including Prince Georgi Lvov and Pavel Milyukov , travelled to Vyborg, a Finnish resort town, in protest of the government. Milyukov drafted the Vyborg Manifesto . In the manifesto, Milyukov called for passive resistance, non-payment of taxes and draft avoidance. Stolypin took revenge on the rebels and "more than 100 leading Kadets were brought to trial and suspended from their part in the Vyborg Manifesto." (32)

Stolypin’s repressive methods created a great deal of conflict. Lionel Kochan , the author of Russia in Revolution (1970), pointed out: "Between November 1905 and June 1906, from the ministry of the interior alone, 288 persons were killed and 383 wounded. Altogether, up to the end of October 1906, 3,611 government officials of all ranks, from governor-generals to village gendarmes, had been killed or wounded." (33) Stolypin told his friend, Bernard Pares , that "in no country is the public more anti-governmental than in Russia". (34)

The revolutionaries were now determined to assassinate Stolypin and there were several attempts on his life. "He wore a bullet-proof vest and surrounded himself with security men – but he seemed to expect nevertheless that he would eventually die violently." The first line of his will, written shortly after he had become Prime Minister, read: "Bury me where I am assassinated." (35)

On 14th September, 1911, Peter Stolypin was shot by Dmitri Bogrov , a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party , at the Kiev Opera House. Nicholas II was with him at the time: "During the second interval we had just left the box, as it was so hot, when we heard two sounds as if something had been dropped. I thought an opera glass might have fallen on somebody’s head and ran back into the box to look. To the right I saw a group of officers and other people. They seemed to be dragging someone along. Women were shrieking and, directly in front of me in the stalls, Stolypin was standing. He slowly turned his face towards me and with his left hand made the sign of the Cross in the air. Only then did I notice he was very pale and that his right hand and uniform were bloodstained. He slowly sank into his chair and began to unbutton his tunic." Stolypin died from his injuries on 18th September, 1911, and was the sixth Minister of the Interior in a row to be assassinated. (36)

First World War

Russia had made considerable economic progress during the early years of the 20th century. By 1914 Russia was was annually producing some five million tons of pig-iron, four million tons of iron and steel, forty tons of coal, ten million tons of petroleum, and was exporting about twelve million tons of grain. However, Russia still lagged a long way behind other major powers. Industry in Russia employed not much more than five per cent of the entire labour force and contributed only about one-fifth of the national income. (37)

Sergei Witte realised that because of its economic situation, Russia would lose a war with any of its rivals. Bernard Pares met Sergei Witte several times in the years leading up to the First World War : "Count Witte never swerved from his conviction, firstly, that Russia must avoid the war at all costs, and secondly, that she must work for economic friendship with France and Germany to counteract the preponderance of England. Rasputin was opposed to the war for reasons as good as Witte’s. He was for peace between all nations and between all religions." (38)

During the July Crisis in 1914, Sergei Witte joined forces with Pyotr Durnovo , the Minister of the Interior, and Gregory Rasputin , to urge the Tsar not to enter a war with Germany. Durnovo told the Tsar that a war with Germany would be "mutually dangerous" to both countries, no matter who won. Witte added that "there must inevitably break out in the conquered country a social revolution, which by the very nature of things, will spread to the country of the victor." After the outbreak of war Witte made attempts to negotiate a peace through his German banker friends. (39)

Sergei Witte died of a brain tumour at his home in St. Petersburg on 13th March, 1915.

Primary Sources

(1) Jamie H. Cockfield , White Crow: The Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov (2002)

Sergi Witte… was probably the most competent minister Nicholas II ever had… Extremely shrewd, Witte had climbed over a number of people on the way up, and it is a testament to his abilities that he did so while married to a Jewish woman who had been divorced. He had a curious social problem in that he had contracted syphilis in his youth, and the disease had devoured his nose. He had it replaced with a wax one, and one member of the imperial family told this author that he would see Witte on the quay at Yalta wearing a cap with a long bill, presumely to protect the wax nose from the sun.

(2) Sergei Witte, letter to Nicholas II (22nd October, 1905)

The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. ‘Freedom’ must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution.

The government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. The government must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state and not endeavour to protect this or that type of government. There is no alternative. The government must either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or it must relinquish it to the elementary forces to tear it to pieces.

(3) Nicholas II , diary entry on the issue of the October Manifesto (19th October, 1905)

Through all these horrible days, I constantly met Witte. We very often met in the early morning to part only in the evening when night fell. There were only two ways open; to find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force. That would mean rivers of blood, and in the end we would be where had started. The other way out would be to give to the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have laws conformed by a State Duma – that of course would be a constitution. Witte defends this very energetically.

Almost everybody I had an opportunity of consulting, is of the same opinion. Witte put it quite clearly to me that he would accept the Presidency of the Council of Ministers only on the condition that his programme was agreed to, and his actions not interfered with. We discussed it for two days and in the end, invoking God’s help I signed. This terrible decision which nevertheless I took quite consciously. I had no one to rely on except honest Trepov. There was no other way out but to cross oneself and give what everyone was asking for.

(4) Nicholas II , diary entry on Sergei Witte (November, 1905)

As long as I live, I will never trust that man (Witte) again with the smallest thing. I had quite enough of last year’s experiment. It is still like a nightmare to me.

(5) Leon Trotsky , Izvestia (3rd November, 1905)

We are given a Witte, but Trepov remains; we are given a constitution, but absolutism remains. All is given and nothing is given. The proletariat knows what it wants and what it doesn’t want. It doesn’t want the police hooligan Trepov, nor the liberal mediator Witte – neither the jaws of a wolf nor the tail of a fox. It doesn’t want Cossack whips wrapped up in a constitution.

(6) Leon Trotsky , History of The Russian Revolution (1933)

After Stolypin we saw the same position occupied by Plehve, then by Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, then Bulygin, then Witte. All of them, one after the other, arrived with [Continue reading…]

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