Sergei Witte
Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte , also known as Sergius Witte, was a highly influential policy-maker who presided over extensive industrialization within the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. He served under the last two emperors of Russia. He was also the author of the October Manifesto
October Manifesto
The October Manifesto was issued on 17 October, 1905 by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia under the influence of Count Sergei Witte as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905....

 of 1905, a precursor to Russia's first constitution
Russian Constitution of 1906
The Russian Constitution of 1906 refers to a major revision of the 1832 Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, which transformed the formerly absolutist state into one in which the emperor agreed for the first time to share his autocratic power with a parliament. It was enacted on April 23, 1906,...

, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister
Prime Minister of Russia
The Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation The use of the term "Prime Minister" is strictly informal and is not allowed for by the Russian Constitution and other laws....

) of the Russian Empire.

Family and early life

Witte's father Julius Witte came from a Lutheran
Lutheranism is a major branch of Western Christianity that identifies with the theology of Martin Luther, a German reformer. Luther's efforts to reform the theology and practice of the church launched the Protestant Reformation...

 Baltic German (originally Dutch) family and had been member of the knightage of the City of Pskov
Pskov is an ancient city and the administrative center of Pskov Oblast, Russia, located in the northwest of Russia about east from the Estonian border, on the Velikaya River. Population: -Early history:...

. He converted to Russian Orthodoxy
Russian Orthodoxy
Russian Orthodoxy in Christianity may refer to:*Eastern Orthodox Church, the Church descended from the Imperial Church of the Byzantine Empire*Russian Orthodox Church*Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia*Old Believers*True Orthodox Church...

 upon marriage with Witte's mother Yækaterina Fadeyeva. Sergei Witte's maternal grandfather was Andrei Mikhailovich Fadeyev, a Governor of Saratov
-Modern Saratov:The Saratov region is highly industrialized, due in part to the rich in natural and industrial resources of the area. The region is also one of the more important and largest cultural and scientific centres in Russia...

 and Privy Councillor of the Caucasus
The Caucasus, also Caucas or Caucasia , is a geopolitical region at the border of Europe and Asia, and situated between the Black and the Caspian sea...

, his grandmother was Princess Helene Dolgoruki, and the mystic Madame Blavatsky
Madame Blavatsky
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky , was a theosophist, writer and traveler. Between 1848 and 1875 Blavatsky had gone around the world three times. In 1875, Blavatsky together with Colonel H. S. Olcott established the Theosophical Society...

 was his first cousin. He was born in Tiflis
Tbilisi is the capital and the largest city of Georgia, lying on the banks of the Mt'k'vari River. The name is derived from an early Georgian form T'pilisi and it was officially known as Tiflis until 1936...

, Tiflis Governorate
Tiflis Governorate
Tiflis Governorate was one of the guberniyas of the Russian Empire with its centre in Tiflis . In 1897 it constituted 44,607 sq. kilometres in area and had a population of 1,051,032 inhabitants...

 of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 (present-day Georgia
Georgia (country)
Georgia is a sovereign state in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, it is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the southwest by Turkey, to the south by Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan. The capital of...

) and raised in the house of his mother's parents.

He finished Gymnasium I in Chişinău
Chișinău is the capital and largest municipality of Moldova. It is also its main industrial and commercial centre and is located in the middle of the country, on the river Bîc...

 and commenced studying Physico-Mathematical Sciences at the Novorossiysk University
Odessa University
The I. I. Mechnikov Odessa National University , located in Odessa, Ukraine, is one of the country's major universities. It was founded in 1865, by an edict of Czar Alexander II of Russia, reorganizing the Richelieu Lyceum of Odessa into the new Imperial Novorossiya University. In the Soviet...

 in Odessa
Odessa or Odesa is the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast located in southern Ukraine. The city is a major seaport located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of 1,029,000 .The predecessor of Odessa, a small Tatar settlement,...

 in 1866 graduating top of his class in 1870.

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
Odessa or Odesa is the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast located in southern Ukraine. The city is a major seaport located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of 1,029,000 .The predecessor of Odessa, a small Tatar settlement,...

 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.

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
Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. It has an area of 603,628 km², making it the second largest contiguous country on the European continent, after Russia...

, 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 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
Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and the largest city of Ukraine, located in the north central part of the country on the Dnieper River. The population as of the 2001 census was 2,611,300. However, higher numbers have been cited in the press....

 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
Alexander III of Russia
Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov , historically remembered as Alexander III or Alexander the Peacemaker reigned as Emperor of Russia from until his death on .-Disposition:...

, 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
Borki train disaster
The Borki train disaster occurred on near Borki station in the former Kharkov Governorate of the Russian Empire , 295 kilometers south of Kursk, when the imperial train carrying Tsar Alexander III of Russia and his family from Crimea to Saint Petersburg derailed at high speed...

, which resulted in the appointment of Witte to the position of Director of State Railways.

Career with the Finance Ministry

Witte served as Russian Director of Railway Affairs within the Finance Ministry from 1889–1891; and during this period, he oversaw an ambitious program of railway construction which included the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway
Trans-Siberian Railway
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railways connecting Moscow with the Russian Far East and the Sea of Japan. It is the longest railway in the world...

. 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
Friedrich List
Georg Friedrich List was a leading 19th century German economist who developed the "National System" or what some would call today the National System of Innovation...

 and justified the need for a strong domestic industry, protected from foreign competition by customs barriers. The resulted in a new customs law for Russia in 1891, which spurred an increase in industrialization in Russia towards the turn of the century.

The Tsar appointed him acting Minister of Ways and Communications in 1892. 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
Li Hongzhang
Li Hongzhang or Li Hung-chang , Marquis Suyi of the First Class , GCVO, was a leading statesman of the late Qing Empire...

 of the Qing Empire. One of the rights secured for Russia was the construction of the China Eastern Railway across Manchuria
Manchuria is a historical name given to a large geographic region in northeast Asia. Depending on the definition of its extent, Manchuria usually falls entirely within the People's Republic of China, or is sometimes divided between China and Russia. The region is commonly referred to as Northeast...

, which greatly shortened the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway to its projected eastern terminus at Vladivostok
The city is located in the southern extremity of Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, which is about 30 km long and approximately 12 km wide.The highest point is Mount Kholodilnik, the height of which is 257 m...

. However, following the Triple Intervention
Triple Intervention
The was a diplomatic intervention by Russia, Germany, and France on 23 April 1895 over the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki signed between Japan and Qing dynasty China that ended the First Sino-Japanese War.-Treaty of Shimonoseki:...

, 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
Russian ruble
The ruble or rouble is the currency of the Russian Federation and the two partially recognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Formerly, the ruble was also the currency of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union prior to their breakups. Belarus and Transnistria also use currencies with...

 on the gold standard
Gold standard
The gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed mass of gold. There are distinct kinds of 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. 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
Pyotr Stolypin
Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin served as the leader of the 3rd DUMA—from 1906 to 1911. His tenure was marked by efforts to repress revolutionary groups, as well as for the institution of noteworthy agrarian reforms. Stolypin hoped, through his reforms, to stem peasant unrest by creating a class of...

. 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
Nicholas II of Russia
Nicholas II was the last Emperor of Russia, Grand Prince of Finland, and titular King of Poland. His official short title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias and he is known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church.Nicholas II ruled from 1894 until...

 transferred Witte to the position of chairman of the Committee of Ministers
Russian Council of Ministers
The Russian Council of Ministers is an executive governmental body that brings together the principal officers of the Executive Branch of the Russian government.- Committee of Ministers :...

, a position he held until 1906. 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
Korea ) is an East Asian geographic region that is currently divided into two separate sovereign states — North Korea and South Korea. Located on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and is separated from Japan to the...

 caused him to resign from government in 1903.

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
Russo-Japanese War
The Russo-Japanese War was "the first great war of the 20th century." It grew out of rival imperial ambitions of the Russian Empire and Japanese Empire over Manchuria and Korea...

. 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
Roman Rosen
Baron Roman Romanovich Rosen was a diplomat in the service of the Russian Empire.-Biography:Rosen was from a long line of russified Baltic German nobility that included musicians and military leaders...

, Master of the Imperial Court of Russia to the United States, where the peace talks
Treaty of Portsmouth
The Treaty of Portsmouth formally ended the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. It was signed on September 5, 1905 after negotiations at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine in the USA.-Negotiations:...

 were being held.

Witte is credited with negotiating brilliantly on Russia's behalf. Russia lost very little in the final settlement. For his efforts, Witte was created a Count. 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
Russian Council of Ministers
The Russian Council of Ministers is an executive governmental body that brings together the principal officers of the Executive Branch of the Russian government.- Committee of Ministers :...

, the equivalent of Prime Minister, in 1905. During the Russian Revolution of 1905
Russian Revolution of 1905
The 1905 Russian Revolution was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire. Some of it was directed against the government, while some was undirected. It included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies...

, Witte advocated the creation of an elected parliament
A parliament is a legislature, especially in those countries whose system of government is based on the Westminster system modeled after that of the United Kingdom. The name is derived from the French , the action of parler : a parlement is a discussion. The term came to mean a meeting at which...

, the formation of a constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified or blended constitution...

, and the establishment of a Bill of Rights
Bill of rights
A bill of rights is a list of the most important rights of the citizens of a country. The purpose of these bills is to protect those rights against infringement. The term "bill of rights" originates from England, where it referred to the Bill of Rights 1689. Bills of rights may be entrenched or...

 through the October Manifesto
October Manifesto
The October Manifesto was issued on 17 October, 1905 by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia under the influence of Count Sergei Witte as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905....

. 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
State Duma
The State Duma , common abbreviation: Госду́ма ) in the Russian Federation is the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia , the upper house being the Federation Council of Russia. The Duma headquarters is located in central Moscow, a few steps from Manege Square. Its members are referred to...

, forced Witte to resign as Chairman of the Council of Ministers on August 22, 1906.

Witte continued in Russian politics as a member of the State Council but never again obtained an administrative role in the government. Just prior to the outbreak of World War I, he urged that Russia stay out of the conflict. His warning that Europe faced calamity if Russia became involved went unheeded, and he died shortly afterwards due to a brain tumor
Brain tumor
A brain tumor is an intracranial solid neoplasm, a tumor within the brain or the central spinal canal.Brain tumors include all tumors inside the cranium or in the central spinal canal...

 at his home in St. Petersburg. His funeral was held at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra
Alexander Nevsky Lavra
Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra or Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery was founded by Peter I of Russia in 1710 at the eastern end of the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg supposing that that was the site of the Neva Battle in 1240 when Alexander Nevsky, a prince, defeated the Swedes; however, the battle...

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
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

 Library's Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture.


  • , Order of St. Alexander Nevsky
    Order of St. Alexander Nevsky
    The Imperial Order of St. Alexander Nevsky was an order of chivalry of the Russian Empire.-History:The introduction of the Imperial Order of St. Alexander Nevsky was planned by Emperor Peter I of Russia...

  • Order of St Vladimir, 1st degree
  • Order of St. Anne
    Order of St. Anna
    The Order of St. Anna ) is a Holstein and then Russian Imperial order of chivalry established by Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp on 14 February 1735, in honour of his wife Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great of Russia...

     1st degree
  • Legion of Honor, Grand Croix, 1901 (France)
  • Order of the Crown (Prussia)
    Order of the Crown (Prussia)
    The Order of the Crown was Prussia's lowest ranking order of chivalry. Instituted in 1861 as an award equal in rank to the Order of the Red Eagle, it could only be awarded to commissioned officers , but there was a medal associated with the order which could be earned by non-commissioned officers...

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