Witte, Sergei

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WITTE, SERGEI (1849–1915), Russian politician.

Sergei Yulyevich Witte was born in Tiflis, Georgia, in 1849. His father was a Baltic German who moved up Peter the Great's Table of Ranks to become a hereditary noble. His mother was related to the ancient Dolgoruky princes; to Helena Blavatsky, a founder of theosophy; and to Rostislav Fadeyev, a leader of the Pan-Slavs. Witte shared the Pan-Slav view that the Russian autocracy united the empire's disparate nationalities. Married twice, Witte had two adopted daughters.

Following his degree in mathematics from the University of Novorossiisk, Witte entered the new field of railroading in Ukraine. He always considered railways key economic levers. His expert management of the southwestern railways and ideas on financing railways and strengthening the economy of the empire catapulted him to St. Petersburg to head the new Department of Railroad Affairs in the Ministry of Finance and then to the position of minister of finance.

As minister of finance (1892–1903), Witte supervised construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, put Russia on the gold standard, forged tariffs with Germany that included fairly favorable conditions for Russia, encouraged foreign investment, and stimulated industrialization through government purchase of domestically produced rails and equipment at above-market prices. During his administration technical and commercial schools increased seventeenfold. Small-scale businesses continued to proliferate. Witte published on economic subjects and to supplement the ministry of finance newspaper established a commercial-trade newspaper and a scholarly economic journal. He transmuted information received from chairing the Special Conference on the Needs of Agricultural Industry or Rural Industry into measures for agrarian improvement.

Although he used a loan from France in 1895 to finance the Chinese Eastern Railway through Manchuria, Witte opposed the Russian adventurism in Korea and Port Arthur that precipitated the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Palace intrigue resulted in Witte's dismissal as finance minister in 1903. As chair of the Committee of Ministers (1903–1905), however, Witte supervised significant laws and proposals. One implemented an imperial decree adding corporately elected members to the State Council, a legislative body dating from the early nineteenth century, composed of appointed officials. Other proposals concerned replacing peasant communes with private farmsteads, improving the position of ethnic and religious minorities, and expanding self-government—proposals that Peter Stolypin fleshed out and strove to implement between 1906 and 1911. In September 1905 Witte participated in the peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ending the Russo-Japanese War and achieved favorable terms for Russia. He had reservations about local, popularly elected assemblies (zemstvos) and the establishment of a parliament, but to quell the general strike that erupted in the fall of 1905, Witte urged Tsar Nicholas II to institute a popularly elected, legislative Duma to complement the State Council. As chair of the Council of Ministers (October 1905–April 1906), a quasi–prime ministerial position, Witte tried to co-opt moderate liberal opposition leaders into the government. He worked out electoral regulations for the Duma, which represented all categories of adult males, though not fully and equally. Witte was awarded the title count for arranging a 2.25 billion franc loan from French, British, Dutch, Austrian, and Russian bankers, finalized in April 1906. He simultaneously resigned as head of the government because hostile political groups dominated the First Duma and because of tension with Tsar Nicholas.

Appointed to the State Council, Witte served in that upper parliamentary chamber until his death, on 13 March (28 February, old style) 1915. He opposed extension of zemstvos to the western provinces of the empire, on which Stolypin staked his career in 1911. Witte also opposed war with Germany, which broke out in 1914. Though not entirely due to Witte, the Russian economy was the fifth strongest in the world in the early twentieth century, with high growth rates that plunged during the 1904–1905 revolution but rebounded through 1913.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Nicholas II; Russia; Stolypin, Peter.


Primary Sources

Witte, Sergei. The Memoirs of Count Witte. Translated and edited by Sidney Harcave. Armonk, N.Y., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Gregory, Paul R. Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Harcave, Sidney. Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography. Armonk, N.Y., 2004.

Mehlinger, Howard D., and John M. Thompson. Count Witte and the Tsarist Government in the 1905 Revolution. Bloomington, Ind., 1972.

Von Laue, Theodore H. Sergei Witte and the Industrialization of Russia. New York, 1963.

Mary Schaeffer Conroy

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