Sergei Witte

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Witte, Sergei Iul’Evich


Born June 17 (29), 1849, in Tbilisi; died Feb. 28 (Mar. 13), 1915, in Petrograd. Russian statesman.

The son of a high official, Witte graduated from the physics and mathematics department of Novorossiiskii University (Odessa) in 1870. In the same year he was appointed traffic chief of the Odessa Railroad, and he subsequently worked for about 20 years for private railroad companies. This long service contributed to Witte’s development as a financier and state official. In 1883 he published the book Principles of Railway Freight Tariffs, which brought him renown. In 1889, Witte became director of the railroad department of the Ministry of Finance; in February 1892, minister of transportation; and in August 1892, after LA . Vyshnegradskii’s resignation, minister of finance. Witte had a great influence on the domestic and foreign policy of the Russian government. He actively promoted the development of Russian capitalism and tried to combine this process with the strengthening of the tsarist monarchy.

Major economic measures were carried out on Witte’s initiative. A liquor monopoly was introduced in 1894, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed, and other railroad construction was begun in the 1890’s. A monetary reform was carried out in 1897, under which gold circulation was introduced, and a free exchange of the credit ruble for gold was established. Witte’s policy of forcing economic development was inseparably linked with introducing foreign capital to industry, as well as bank and state loans. This was facilitated by the protectionist tariffs of 1891 and the political rapprochement with France. In 1894 and 1904 customs agreements were signed with Germany.

On Jan. 22, 1902, the Special Conference on the Needs of Agricultural Industry was set up at Witte’s initiative and under his chairmanship. His program of agrarian demands included proposals that were later used by P. A. Stolypin. The local committees of the conference (82 provincial and regional and 536 district committees) approved the voluntary transfer of peasants from communal to individual landholdings. Nicholas II decided not to carry out the reform and the conference was closed on Mar. 30, 1905. Witte opposed the broadening of the zemstvo (local self-government) institutions. In an argument with I. L. Goremykin (1899) he demonstrated that the zemstvo institutions could lead to a constitution.

Witte tried to uphold the policy of Japan in the Far East and, pursuing a course toward a rapprochement with China, he opposed the seizure of Port Arthur. He took part in signing a defensive alliance with China against Japan and an agreement concerning the construction of the Chinese-Eastern Railroad in Manchuria. Believing that a military conflict would be premature, Witte favored an agreement with Japan. To a large extent, this determined the sharp differences between his policy and the foreign policy of Nicholas II and the Bezobrazov clique. In August 1903, Witte was retired from the post of minister of finance and appointed chairman of the Committee of Ministers. He was the head of the delegation that signed the Portsmouth Peace Treaty of 1905 with Japan. For this he received the title of count.

From October 1905 until April 1906, Witte was head of the Council of Ministers. During the October All-Russian Political Strike of 1905, he forcefully advocated a program of concessions to the bourgeoisie, which found its expression in the Manifesto of Oct. 17, 1905. Although he pursued a policy of accommodation, Witte was at the same time the initiator of punitive expeditions to Siberia, the Baltic region and Poland, and he sent troops from St. Petersburg to suppress the armed uprising in Moscow. In 1906 he obtained a loan of 2.25 million francs from French bankers. All these measures strengthened the position of the government in the struggle against the revolution. However, Witte found himself too far to the left for most of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) and the upper stratum of the ruling bureaucracy and too far to the right for the bourgeois liberal circles of the Octobrists’ and Constitutional Democrats’ orientation. He handed in his resignation, which was accepted on Apr. 16, 1906, and spent the last year of his life in St. Petersburg and abroad. Remaining a member of the State Council, Witte participated in the work of the Finance Committee, of which he was chairman until his death. From 1907 to 1912, Witte wrote his Memoirs, which are of considerable interest for their characterization of the tsarist government’s policy.


Vospominaniia, vols. 1-3, Moscow, 1960. (Introductory article by A. L. Sidorov, “Graf S. Iu. Vitte i ego Vospominaniia.”)


Lenin, V. I. “Kitaiskaia voina.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 4.
Lenin, V. I. “Goniteli zemstva i Annibaly liberalizma.” Ibid ., vol. 5.
Lenin, V. I. “Po povodu gosudarstvennoi rospisi.” Ibid., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. “Razgrom.” Ibid., vol. 10.
Lenin, V. I. “Evropeiskii kapital i samoderzhavie.” Ibid., vol. 9.
Lenin, V. I. “Ravnovesie sil.” Ibid., vol. 12.
Lenin, V. I. “Nachalo razoblachenii o peregovorakh partii k.-d. s ministrami.” Ibid., vol. 21.
Tarle, E. V. Graf S. Iu. Vitte: Opyt kharakteristiki vneshnei politiki. Leningrad [1927].
Romanov, B. A. Ocherki diplomaticheskoi istorii russko-iaponskoi voiny, 1895-1907, 2nd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1955.