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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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.
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.
The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. 'Freedom' must become the slogan of the government. 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 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.
Through all these horrible days, I constantly met Witte. 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.
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.
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.
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 the firm intention of putting an end to sedition, restoring the lost prestige of authority, maintaining the foundations of the state - and every one of them, each in his own way, opened the floodgates of revolution and was himself swept away by its current.
Sedition grew as though according to a majestic plan, constantly expanding its territory, reinforcing its positions and demolishing obstacle after obstacle; while against the backdrop of this tremendous effort, with its inner rhythm and its unconscious genius, appeared a series of little mannequins of state power, issuing new laws, contracting new debts, firing at workers, ruining peasants - and, as a result, sinking the governmental authority which they sought to protect more and more deeply into a bog of frantic impotence.
Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes - but in vain.
Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?
Stolypin fell to a revolutionary's bullet. Plehve was torn to pieces by a bomb. Svyatopolk-Mirsky was transformed into a political corpse on January 9. Bulygin was thrown out, like an old boot, by the October strikes. Count Witte, utterly exhausted by workers' and soldiers' risings, fell without glory, having stumbled on the threshold of the State Duma which he himself had created.
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. Nicholas detested him, and now more than ever; but on March 13th Witte died suddenly.
The other formidable opponent still remained. He was for peace between all nations and between all religions. He claimed to have averted was both in 1909 and in 1912, and his claim was believed by others.
Bloody Sunday (Answer Commentary)
1905 Russian Revolution (Answer Commentary)
Russia and the First World War (Answer Commentary)
The Life and Death of Rasputin (Answer Commentary)
The Coal Industry: 1600-1925 (Answer Commentary)
Women in the Coalmines (Answer Commentary)
Child Labour in the Collieries (Answer Commentary)
Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)
The Chartists (Answer Commentary)
Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)
Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)
Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)
Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)
Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)
Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)
Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)
Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)
James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)
The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)
The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)
The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)
1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)
Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)
William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)
(1) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 25
(2) Sergei Witte, The Memoirs of Count Witte (1921) page 31
(3) Sidney Harcave, Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography (2004) page 9
(4) Jamie H. Cockfield, White Crow: The Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov (2002) page 117
(5) Sidney Harcave, Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography (2004) page 32
(6) Sergi Witte, The Memoirs of Count Witte (1921) page 338
(7) Jamie H. Cockfield, White Crow: The Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov (2002) page 117
(8) David Warnes, Russia: A Modern History (1984) page 6
(9) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) pages 27-28
(10) Sidney Harcave, Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography (2004) page 96
(11) Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia (1977) page 446
(12) Ivan Khristoforovich Ozerov, Policy on the Working Question in Russia (1906) page 138
(13) Roman Rosen, Forty Years of Diplomacy: Volume II (1922) page 240
(14) Emile J. Dillon, The Eclipse of Russia (1918) page 378
(15) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1970) page 180
(16) Sergei Witte, The Memoirs of Count Witte (1921) pages 450-451
(17) Nicholas II, diary entry (19th October, 1905)
(18) Jamie H. Cockfield, White Crow: The Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov (2002) page 116
(19) Sergei Witte, letter to Nicholas II (22nd October, 1905)
(20) Statement issued by St. Petersburg Soviet (26th October, 1905)
(21) Greg King, The Fate of the Romanovs (2005) page 11
(22) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) pages 104-105
(23) Statement from the St. Petersburg Soviet (30th October, 1905)
(24) Nicholas II, diary entry (November, 1905)
(25) Walter Sablinsky, The Road to Bloody Sunday: The Role of Father Gapon and the Petersburg Massacre of 1905 (2006) page 306
(26) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1970) page 185
(27) Walter Sablinsky, The Road to Bloody Sunday: The Role of Father Gapon and the Petersburg Massacre of 1905 (2006) pages 307-308
(28) Maurice Baring, A Year in Russia (1907) pages 191-192
(29) David Warnes, Russia: A Modern History (1984) page 25
(30) Peter Stolypin, interview with Bernard Pares, published in The Russian Review (1913)
(31) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 405
(32) Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (2014) page 221
(33) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 124
(34) Peter Stolypin, interview with Bernard Pares, published in The Russian Review (1913)
(35) Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (2014) page 223
(36) Tsar Nicholas II, diary entry (18th September, 1911)(37) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) pages 16-17
(38) Bernard Pares, The Fall of the Russian Monarchy (1939)
(39) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) pages 174
The Home of the Last Tsar - Romanov and Russian History
"From Paris I went on, by way of Petersburg, to the Crimea, where I stayed in a house belonging to the Ministry of Ways and Communications, on the road from Yalta to Livadia. (The Emperor was then in residence at Livadia) and also nearby were Count Lambsdorff, Kuropatkin, Sipiagin, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, and, of course, Baron Freedericksz.
On November 1 , the Emperor became ill. As was customary with members of the Imperial family, he did not want medical attention. Moreover, his personal physician, the aged Hirsch, had forgotten whatever he had ever known, if, in fact, he had ever known anything. At my suggestion, Professor Popov, of the Military-Medical Academy, was sent for: his diagnosis - typhoid fever. On November 28, the Emperor began to recover.
During the course of the illness the question of who would succeed the Emperor if he died then arose. When the Emperor's brother and Heir, Grand Duke George Aleksandrovich had died the preceding year, the next one in line of succession, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, had been proclaimed Heir. At the time I had felt such a proclamation improper since it was quite possible that the Emperor might still beget a son, who would then replace Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich as Heir. Well, one morning, at a time when the Emperor's condition gave cause for alarm, Sipiagin asked me by phone to come over to the Hotel Rossiia, where he was staying. There I found, in addition to Sipiagin, Count Lambsdorff, Baron Freedericksz, and Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich. As soon as I arrived, a discussion began about how to proceed if a tragedy were to occur and the Emperor should die: what would be the procedure concerning the succession?
I was taken aback by such a question and pointed out that the law left no doubt about the succession: Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich would immediately succeed. My reply evoked the hint that the Empress was in an interesting condition (apparently Baron Freedericksz knew of it) and she might give birth to a boy: might it not be better if the succession would be postponed for a few months until she gave birth? I replied that the succession law did not take such a contingency into account. The law was clear: if the Emperor should die without having begotten a son, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich must succeed. To act otherwise would be illegal and would lead to grave disorders. In any case, no one could predict that the Empress would bear a son. After checking the law, the others agreed with me.
Then the aged Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich asked me what would happen if the Empress were to bear a son after Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich had ascended the throne. I replied that only Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich could answer the question definitely, but that I believed that he, being a very decent and honorable man, would give up the throne in favor of his nephew. After we had come to an agreement, we decided to inform the Empress privately about our meeting.
A few days after the meeting General Kuropatkin stopped off for lunch. (He was on his way back from giving a report to the Emperor, who, despite his illness, heard reports in special cases.) After lunch, when we were alone, he asked me about the meeting, saying that he had been invited, but had been unable to attend. I reviewed what we had said and remarked that it was unfortunate that he could not have been there. Striking a theatrical pose, he said: "I will not cause my Empress grief." Knowing him for a poseur, I did not attach any significance to this remark and asked why he assumed that he alone had the privilege of not "causing the Empress any grief."
Happily, the Emperor recovered and there was no further talk then of the succession question, but before leaving the Crimea I made it a point to advise Baron Freedericksz that it would be wise to issue new instructions, legally enacted, to avoid future ambiguities. A few years later, as I learned from Pobedonostsev and Nicholas Valerianovich Muravev, Their Majesties raised the question of whether or not their eldest daughter could succeed if they had no son the two were instructed to look into the matter. Pobedonostsev was absolutely opposed to the notion of changing the succession, believing that the succession laws laid down by Emperor Paul had contributed to the stability of the throne. Nonetheless, Pobedonostsev and Muravev were instructed to prepare the draft of a decree providing for the succession of the eldest daughter, but the decree was not published and, in 1904, lost its validity with the fortunate birth of a son, Grand Duke Alexis Nikolaevich, to Their Majesties. I know nothing more about the episode of the decree.
A legend was to arise that, at the meeting I have just described, I showed myself less than devoted to the Emperor. I heard about it not long ago, in Biarritz, from Alexandra Nikolaevna Naryshkina, whose only claim to fame is that she is the widow of Emmanuel Dmitrievich Naryshkin, the illegitimate son of Emperor Alexander I and the well-known Naryshkina, a Pole by origin. (See the memoirs dealing with this subject published a few years ago by Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich.)
Well, during our conversation she asked if I knew why the Empress was unsympathetic, if not hostile, toward me. I said that I did not know how she felt about me, for I rarely saw her and had spoken with her on but a few occasions.
Naryshkina then said: "I know that her attitude arose from the fact that when the Emperor nearly died at Livadia, you insisted that Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich succeed to the throne. "I said that I had not insisted on anything and had merely explained the exact meaning of the existing laws and that the others present, including Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, son of Emperor Nicholas I, whom none could suspect of being less than totally devoted to the Sovereign, had agreed."
Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915
History and biography meet in this book, a study of the late-Romanov Russian Romanov, told through the figure of Sergei Witte. Like Bismarck or Gorbachev, Witte was a European statesman serving an empire. He was the most important statesman of pre-revolutionary Russia. In the Georgia, Odessa, Kyiv, and St. Petersburg of the 19th century, he inhabited the worlds of the Victorian Age, as young boy, student, railway executive, lover of divorcees and Jews, monarchist, and technocrat. His political career saw him construct the Tran-Siberian Railway, propel Russia towards Far Eastern war with Japan, . More
History and biography meet in this book, a study of the late-Romanov Russian Romanov, told through the figure of Sergei Witte. Like Bismarck or Gorbachev, Witte was a European statesman serving an empire. He was the most important statesman of pre-revolutionary Russia. In the Georgia, Odessa, Kyiv, and St. Petersburg of the 19th century, he inhabited the worlds of the Victorian Age, as young boy, student, railway executive, lover of divorcees and Jews, monarchist, and technocrat. His political career saw him construct the Tran-Siberian Railway, propel Russia towards Far Eastern war with Japan, visit America in 1905 to negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth concluding that war, and return home to confront revolutionary disorder with the State Duma, the first Russian parliament. The book is based on two memoir manuscripts that Witte wrote between 1906 and 1912, and includes his account of Nicholas II, the Empress Alexandra, and the machinations of a Russian imperial court that he believed were leading the country to revolution.
The Home of the Last Tsar - Romanov and Russian HistoryCount Witte was born in Tiflis in the Caucasus (now Georgia) in 1849. His father was a Baltic german and his mother Russian and a member of the nobility. Witte went into railroading and rose to director of the department of Railroads in 1889. Alexander III showed great faith in Witte by making him his Finance minster in 1889. When Nicholas II came to the throne in 1894 he inherited Witte "a rising star, an ambitious, brash, brash and young man", with some reservations. Witte's power and authority continued to grow, but Nicholas decided his power had grown too strong and he promoted Witte down to the dead-end position of chairman of the Committee of Ministers in 1903.
In 1905 Nicholas reluctantly called about Witte to negotiate peace with Japan . he travelled to the USA and skillfully worked both US public opinion and the Japanese to secure a treaty that cut Russia's expected losses at the negotiating table after a humiliating loss to Japan in the Far East. Upon his return to Russia and despite the Tsar's past doubts Nicholas made him a Count and gave him unprecedented power as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Witte assumed this responsibility in the midst of the troubles of 1905. Widespread unrest and the belief that things were spiraling out of control lead Witte to recommend drastic reforms which he felt were essential to preserve Russian and the throne. Nicholas accepted these recommendations under duress and issued the October 17 Manifesto which at one stroke turned Russia into a constitutional monarchy. Although Nicholas felt this was the only choice open to him he still resented Witte's part in the abrogation of the throne's autocratic power and in six months he retired him from government service.
After service that Witte felt had saved Nicholas and the Empire this dismissal - couched as it was in polite language and royal largesse - embittered Witte, but due to his loyalty and sense of propriety he kept his mouth shut for the time being.
Witte and his wife travelled abroad. Rumors of plots to assassinate Witte reached him and in January 1907 a bomb was found planted in his home. Late that year and began work on his memoirs, which he planned to publish one day to set the record straight. In 1908 he returned to Russia and continued work on his manuscript. This effort continued for many years and was basically completed in 1912, although publication was put off until sometime in the future.
The outbreak of war found Witte and his family in France and his memoirs were left in a secure French bank vault while they returned to Russia. Witte died in 1915. His widow escaped from Bolshevik Russia and 1919 and took his memoirs to New York for publication, where they appeared in 1921.
At the time of his forced retirement in 1905 Count Witte felt a natural bitterness toward Nicholas which was expressed in the earliest parts of his manuscripts. Alexandra hardly appears as she was not involved in politics until World War I, although he still expresses great antipathy for her and censures what he felt was her negative reinforcement of the Tsar's worst qualities. Later, with time and reflection, his attitude toward them mellows.
Sergei Witte – gifted statesman
Sergei Yulyevich Witte, the future Russian reformer, graduated from the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at the age of 21. And later he took the post of head of the Odessa Railway movement. At 40, he became director of the Department of Railways under the Ministry of Finance, three years later – Minister of Railways and Finance.
Witte introduced the “state monopoly of the trade in drinks” in the country. The state began to live not from the labor and talent of its subjects, but from alcoholism. So, the drunken revenue filled the budget for a quarter. Excise taxes on matches, tobacco, kerosene, sugar, tea, etc. were growing. Taxes grew, and the people, naturally, became poor.
Witte built the Trans-Siberian Railway Network so that, in his words, “Europe got a gate to the Asian East,” but Russia should be a gatekeeper at that gate. For this reason, he chose the road through Chinese Manchuria to the Pacific Ocean as the most interesting for western merchants.
For the sake of obtaining the right to build the China-East Railway (CER), they offered a bribe of three million rubles to the actual head of the Chinese empire, the noble mandarin Li Hongzhang. He agreed, although he was already a rich man: he held a monopoly on the trade in opium in central China. He was given a million, then Nicholas II gave him a diamond ring worth about a million, and built a CER. And one million rubles disappeared without a trace.
Having received the railway, Manchuria quickly turned into the most developed part of China. In less than seven years, its population had doubled, cities had economically overtaken Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.
In 1897, Witte, who wanted to attract foreign investment, persuaded the tsar to issue a decree on the free exchange of cards for gold and on the manufacture of gold coins. They devalued by lowering the gold content of the ruble by a third. The second act was the transfer Russian debts from silver to gold, which significantly increased them. The third number was the understatement of the exchange rate. Fourth – the limitation of the capabilities of Russian industrialists, so as not to compete with the Europeans.
Russian statesman Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte
Finding out how good the investment climate in Russia was, the western businessmen ran there with their capitals. In 1902, 783 million rubles were exported, and in 1903 – even 902 million.
To achieve such a remarkable result, it was necessary to ruin population by killing the local economy. There was very little paper money in circulation, the demand for goods was falling, and the consumption of basic food products fell to the level of 1861, the year the peasants were freed from serfdom. The enchanting flowering of industry, based on the big money of foreigners and the small salaries of Russians, ended in 1899. After this collapse, the economy returned to its pre-reform state, and foreign capital ran away – but the population had already managed to become impoverished.
The country moved towards the 1905 revolution.
Japan had conquered many lands in China. Witte persuaded the Japanese government to abandon the Liaodong Peninsula, which was close to Russia, so that the rights of all countries were equal. Japan believed him and Russia gained a foothold in the Kwantung region at the tip of the peninsula. Minister of War Kuropatkin proposed pulling a railway line here, and Witte agreed.
Again they paid a bribe to Li Hongzhang, and Russia received Kwantung with the cities of Port Arthur and Dalniy, allegedly for rent.
Port Arthur became the main naval base of the Russian Pacific squadron, and the port of Dalniy Witte opened for international trade.
The Japanese demanded to expel the treacherous Russians from China. Finally, Japanese Prime Minister Ito arrived in St. Petersburg and made proposals acceptable to both sides, but did not receive a clear answer. Witte stood on the idea that Japan should not be allowed into Russian lands. And Japan began to purchase weapons from Western countries.
Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte
Meanwhile, the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed. It turned out that it was not capable of mass troop transfers. But the war with Japan showed the obvious: strategically important railways had to be laid on own territory. So, the Russians had to build the Amur Railway, which was finished in 1916.
Having defeated the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, Japan nevertheless fell into a terrible situation. It was in danger of financial collapse on land, the army could not advance – there were more Russian troops there than Japanese. However, Witte convinced the tsar that Russia could not fight. And the tsar appointed him the head of the delegation, which went to Portsmouth (USA) to sign peace with Japan.
As a result, Russia lost the southern part of the CER, Port Arthur and Dalniy and half of Sakhalin. For this feat, the tsar gave Witte the title of count, and the people gave the nickname Semi-Sakhalin.
The economy was in ruins. Witte went from Portsmouth to Paris, where he took a huge loan. Meanwhile, the tsar, already having an agreement on the Franco-Russian alliance, signed an agreement on an alliance with Germany with an obligation to protect each other in the war. But Germany could have only one war – with France and England, already united in the Entente. Witte was terrified (what about the French loan?) and begged the tsar to annul the alliance with Germany.
So the loan he took to save the country from the consequences of his own activities predetermined not only that Russia would fight in 1914, but also with whom and against whom.
In the same year, His Excellency Count, chairman of the Council of Ministers, extinguished the revolutionary wave: sent punitive expeditions to Siberia, the Baltic states, Poland and Moscow. Also he wrote the Manifesto and Nicholas II announced the beginning of liberalization in Russia on October 17, 1905.
Finally, even the tsar realized who was responsible for all the troubles, and he dismissed the count. In turn, Sergei Yulyevich, unshakably confident in his righteousness, issued memoirs in which he introduced the tsar, who prevented him, Witte, from carrying out reforms in Russia.
Sergei Witte died on February 28, 1915.
On this day: The birth of Russian state reformer Sergei Witte
Sergei Witte. / Library of Congress
Sergei Witte, born June 29, 1849, was a highly influential economist, state minister, and prime minister in Imperial Russia. He was also one of the key players in the political arena of the late 19 th &ndash early 20 th century. Witte served under the last two Russian emperors, Alexander III and Nicholas II.
Witte was head of the Russian Ministry of Finance for 11 years, during which the state budget tremendously increased and major economic reforms were made. "During my tenure as Finance Minister, industry grew so rapidly that it could be said that a Russian national industrial system had been established. This was made possible by the system of protectionism and by attracting foreign capital," wrote Witte in his memoirs.
In his Report for Czar Nicholas II (1899), Witte said his famous words: &ldquoBut there is a radical difference between Russia and a colony: Russia is an independent and strong power. She has the right and the strength not to want to be the eternal handmaiden of states which are more developed economically.&rdquo
Witte died on May 15, 1915 due to meningitis, or a brain tumor.
Read more: Searching Russia&rsquos economic past for secrets of growth
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- By 1910 only 30% of Russia’s national production was industrial, compared to 75% for Great Britain and 70% for Germany
- Most of Russia’s exports were still agricultural produce.
- Critics of Witte have said that he was too dependent on foreign money and that he was too interested in heavy industry and ignored Russia’s agricultural needs
- Undoubtedly there was underinvestment in agriculture and this added to peasant difficulties, but it did not cause them
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- Includes challenging questions
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Blavatsky and Count Witte
HPB’s first cousin, Count Sergei Witte, will get a new evaluation based on his written memoirs. Oxford University Press will be publishing Francis W. Wcislo’s study, Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, which is scheduled for release in May. Subjecting Witte’s reminiscences to historical record, Wcislo writes: “Truth be told, his memoirs are, quite simply stories: narrated tales and remembered impressions of a life in imperial Russia that allow the historian access to the cultural values, human identities, and patterns of life experience, which constituted its rhythms.…Indeed, Blavatsky’s story was the very first genuine ‘tale’ he told. All of Witte’s narrative devices were here for the first time on display.”
The English version of Witte’s Memoirs, based on dictated material and translated by Abraham Yarmolinsky in 1921, and by Sidney Harcave in 1990, has been a prime source of information on Blavatsky’s life in Russia. His mother, Katherine Witte (née Fadeeva), was the younger sister of HPB’s mother, and he spent part of his childhood living with his grandparents, as HPB had done.
What Witte knew of Blavatsky’s debut in the 1850s was mainly family lore, buttressed by both his belief she possessed ‘some sort of supernatural talent’ and his own few boyhood memories of her. In that sense he constructed Blavatsky. There was Blavatsky the orphan, raised by his grandparents after Elana Gan’s early death. Blavatsky was a young, harried woman, married off to a much older civil official in Armenia when she was 17, who within months had fled home to her grandparents. She was the runaway. Returned to Tiflis, Blavatsky was dispatched to her father in Russia, but, arriving in the Black Sea steamship depot of Poti, she ‘took the scent (sniukhat’sia)’ of an English steamship captain and sailed off with him to the capital city of the Ottomans, which Witte in Greek and Slavic fashion called Constantinople. There she became…a circus bareback rider, lover of the European opera bass Mitrovitch, companion of a London man on business in America, follower of the mid-century’s ‘greatest spiritualist’, concert pianist and choirmaster of the Serbian king. This bewildering array of indentities for the illicit woman was very much Witte’s concoction. They all bore little facsimile to the historical record, none more so than his own memory of a chastened Blavatsky, returned in 1860 to Tiflis and a respectable life, when Witte would have been 12.
Sergei Witte-Fortune’s Favorite or Great Politician?
Sergei Witte’s rise to power was an unusual one. As an young adult, Witte was more interested in physics and mathematics rather than politics. All that changed, however, when he accepted a position at a railroad company, where he steadily rose in the ranks.
One compelling incident occurred during Witte’s career as a railroad technician. A train wreck occurred in 1875 on a railway line that Witte was in charge of. The wreck killed several people, and he was summoned to provide evidence for the investigation. During his time there, he made such an impact on the officials of the Ministry of Finance that they offered him a government position. An event that could have ended his career as a railway technician ended up being the nudge he needed to start his political career.
Witte’s next stroke of luck occurred in 1888. The train that Tzar Alexander III and his family was travelling in had derailed. The Minister of Ways and Communication at the time had resigned, and the tzar offered Witte to be the head of the railway department in the Ministry of Finance. In 1893, Witte became the head of the Ministry of Finance.
As the head, Witte pushed out a number of reforms. He stabilized the ruble to the gold standard. He increased taxes to offset the deficit in budget. Witte completed his Trans-Siberian Railway project, and negotiated with the Chinese to build the Chinese-East Railway.
Alexander III held Sergei Witte in high regards, but Nicholas II, the czar who took the throne after Alexander III, didn’t feel the same way. Nicholas II disliked Witte’s stubborn and independent attitude, but couldn’t dismiss Witte’s competence as Minister of Finance. Thus, Witte was able to keep his position.
Though Witte lost his position early in the 20th century, he was determined to return to the political spotlight however. And he did, during the end of the Russian Japanese war. The war was a loss for Japan and he was assigned as a diplomat to negotiate peace talks with Japan. Witte managed to procure minimal losses for Russia, and was given the title of ‘Count’ for his achievements. He also created the 17th October Manifesto during the 1905 revolution, and he was appointed to head of Council of Ministers, the peak of his political career.
Witte had additional plans for Russia during WWI, but, unfortunately, sickness got in the way. He died in 28 February, 1915.
The title comes from the two very different perspective of Witte from the two sources that I used for this post. The New York Times article describes Witte as an extremely lucky man who just stumbled his way onto success. Being at the right place at the right time. The other source, from Russiapedia, describes Witte as an extremely scrupulous person. He capitalized on human weakness and used bribery to get what he wanted, and rumors to remove those above him.
The Origin Story of the Protocols: Okhrana
A secret society called the Learned Elders of Zion never existed, but the spurious document that invented it—the Protocols—does exist. (Image: DedMityay/Shutterstock)
The Supposed Origin Story of the Protocols
Picture a semi-dark room in Paris. The year is 1904 or 1905. Two men peer at papers laid out on a small table. One copies from one of the documents to another. The second watches with satisfaction. The writer is Matvei Golovinsky, an employee of the Russian secret police, or Okhrana. The other is his boss, Peter Rachkovsky, who oversees the Okhrana’s foreign operations.
The document Golovinsky copies from is an 1864 political tract titled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The document he’s creating is the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion or Protocols for short. Rachkovsky will soon put the finished product in the hands of the religious fanatic Sergei Nilus, who’ll publish them in his 1905 book The Great in the Small. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Purpose of the Origin StorySergei Nilus published the Protocols in a 1905 book called The Great in the Small. (Image: Sergei Nilus (1862-1929)/Public domain)
However, the story isn’t true. It never happened. It couldn’t have happened. The true origins of perhaps the most pernicious document in modern history remain a mystery. The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a Jewish secret society—the so-called Elders of Zion—bent on world domination.
Anti-Semitism, which is to say, anti-Jewism, was nothing new. It had been around for centuries. But the Protocols subtly and critically changed this prejudice. While Jews had long been persecuted for not being Christians, they generally weren’t seen as irredeemable or inhuman. All they had to do was convert.
But the Protocols turned Jews into predatory monsters scheming to enslave the rest of humanity. In this view, Jews weren’t a nuisance, but a threat a threat that could only be removed by their extermination.
This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The ‘Okhrana-Did-It’ Version
The ‘Okhrana-did-it’ version of the Protocols’ origins has been popularized by the late Norman Cohn’s 1967 book Warrant for Genocide.
Cohn was a London-born linguist and expert on Nazi anti-Semitism. In 1999, the Okhrana theory received further support when a Russian researcher named Mikhail Lepekhin discovered documents in Moscow that seemed to confirmed Matvei Golovinsky as the forger.
The Supposed Role of Sacred Brotherhood
Golovinsky was also a member of a secret society: The Sacred or Holy Brotherhood, a group that plays a murky but important role in this story.
The Sacred Brotherhood sprang-up after the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II at the hands of revolutionaries. The man credited with dreaming it up was the future imperial finance and prime minister Sergei Witte.
Witte believed that the only way to fight revolutionary terrorism was with counter-terrorism. But the person who turned Witte’s dream into a reality was the chief of the tsar’s personal guard, Count Illarion Vorontsov- Dashkov.
Headed by a secret, five-man ‘council of elders’, the Sacred Brotherhood enlisted hundreds of noblemen, businessmen, and others anxious to protect the tsar and save Russia.
The Brotherhood included several Jewish members as well. But it was a private, not a state, organization. That earned it the hostility of many tsarist officials. Some were just jealous, while others smelled something sinister. One minister declared the Brotherhood preached ‘sedition of another kind’.
The Formal End of the Sacred Brotherhood
Official pressure and internal quarrels formally ended the Sacred Brotherhood barely two years after it began. But that didn’t mean it was dead. The Russian secret police, the Okhrana, was basically an official replacement for the Sacred Brotherhood, and the Okhrana undoubtedly absorbed parts of it. Under men like Peter Rachkovsky, the Okhrana created a vast clandestine network of spies and informers stretching across Europe.
But in pinning the blame for the Protocols on Rachkovsky, Norman Cohn inadvertently relied on very unreliable sources. The same was true of Russian researcher, Lepekhin, who simply repeated what French intelligence had picked up from many of the same dubious sources. A lie ended-up being explained with more lies.
Doubts over Okhrana’s Role and Protocols’ Date
Doubts about the Okhrana’s role in the Protocols arose early on. The Russian scholar Vladimir Burtsev was a revolutionary and staunch critic of the tsarist secret police. Nevertheless, investigation convinced Burtsev that the Okhrana had nothing to do with it. For instance, Burtsev determined that neither Rachkovsky nor Golovinsky were even in Paris at the time.
Rachkovsky had been dismissed from Okhrana service in 1902. So why would he have been concocting the Protocols for that agency two years later?
Moreover, Italian researcher Cesare de Michelis found that the first version of Protocols actually appeared in 1903, not 1905. It appeared in a small St. Petersburg paper called Znamya, which was a mouthpiece for violently anti-Semitic groups known as the Black Hundreds.
Common Questions about the Origin Story of the Protocols: Okhrana
We can’t be sure about the provenance of the Protocols . But there is plenty of evidence that stands against the assertion that Okhrana wrote the Protocols.
The Protocols was first published in 1903, and not 1905. But, the more popular version is the 1905 one, published by Sergei Nilus.
There is no credible source that informs about the author of the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion . Nevertheless, it’s quite likely that the book was written by Maurice Joly, the author of The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.
Maurice Joly is the author of The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu from which certain parts of the Protocols are plagiarized.