Count Sergei Witte, 1849-1915: Another Man of Steel

Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, Francis Wcislo, Oxford University Press.

A minor Russian aristocrat of German-Baltic roots, hence the surname, and a cousin of Madame Blavatsky.  His own mysterious powers were  a little more earthbound  than hers.

Witte was one of those provincial top-of-the-class boys who was smarter than you and he knew it.  He shamed his parents by opting to study mathematics rather than law at U of Odessa, with the aim of teaching at the college level.  That was apparently too low an ambition for the family, and therefore scotched.

Instead he went into the high tech hot subject of the day – railroads.

He was in fact well suited for it, all that math working into fuel and maintenance costs, load capacities, passenger numbers,  infrastructure, profit and loss, and soon enough he was effectively running the show.

Not the slam dunk you might imagine.  Russia was still behind the industrial curve, still working on the Peter the Great rise to greatness.  An emerging market, so to speak, and hard pressed to attract currency, particularly foreign currency.   What helped put his efforts on the map – the map being the area between Kiev and the Transcaucasus – was the Russian war with the Ottomans in 1877-1878.  Trains helped move troops and materiel, and once you have the army on your side, it’s hard to do wrong.

He impressed Alexander III with all this railway stuff, and in 1889 was tapped to head the Railroad Division of the Finance Ministry.  With all of Russia as his playground, he turned his eyes to Siberia and got the Trans-Siberian Railway off the ground.  (Some risk to that- it cut through parts of Manchuria, an area coveted by the Japanese.)

Three years later he was made head of the Finance Ministry and came into his own.    Witte’s ambitions for his country (and he was before anything else a Russian patriot) was economic development, and fast. He also saw industrialization as the way to go.  Where America had made land-grant colleges, Witte founded trade schools to provide the next generation of builders.   He put Russia on the gold standard, and foreign investment poured in.  He advocated a more liberal social agenda as well – like many accomplished smart people, he was a firm believer in meritocracy, which did nothing to endear him to the old aristocracy

“I am neither  a Liberal nor a Conservative. I am simply a man of culture. I cannot exile a man to Siberia merely because he does not think as I do, and I cannot deprive him of civil rights because he does not pray in the same church as I do.”   He walked that walk as well – his second wife had been born Jewish.

All this was fine with Alexander III, who like this blunt man who was willing to speak his mind.  His son, Nicholas II, not so much.  The old czar died of nephritis in 1894,  Nicolas was convinced by the old aristocracy whose pleasant lives were being  unsettled urged some kind of action to be taken.  This fellow Witte, well,  you’ve heard about his wife, no? How can the Czar trust such a man?

When the chips are down, trust goes to the man who can get things done.  When a sound hand was needed to represent  Russia  after the Russo-Japanese War,  it was Witte who went, and saved more of Russia’s bacon than they had any right to expect.  For one thing, he knew that international diplomacy was as much a PR job as mere negotiation, and made it a point to schmooze the journalists.  The job went so well that Nicolas made him a count.

The successful outcome of that job was likely what got him a place at the table when the government tried to figure out what to do about worker unrest  back east.  (1905 was the year of the Potemkin Mutiny.)  Revamp the government was Witte’s take on it.  A constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature.   The result was the October Manifesto and the creation of the Duma.  Russia was entering the twentieth century.

Too little too late, it appeared.  Witte was removed from office in 1906,  thanks in part to the  Empress who simply did not like him.

He spent the sunset years worked on his memoirs, self-serving as political memoirs tend to be, and worth reading. He did his writing and left his manuscripts outside of Russian, concerned that the secret police might swoop down at any time and take them away.

He was in Paris in the summer of 1914 and there got the news of Sarajevo.  He was appalled, both by the assassination and by the web of alliances that, once the guns started firing, he predicted would drag his country down.  No advantage to the empire getting involved in that quagmire, and he said as much at the time.  Let them fight but for God’s sake,  let diplomats hurry up and talk peace.

Not a popular stand at the time.

He died in early 1915, having laid the foundation for the Soviet industrial push of the 1920’s and 30’s.  You blame the problems on the predecessors and take credit for the crops they planted before harvest time.

Curious product of the age, and without doubt a significant player in the years leading up to the first war, and therefore in everything that has happened since then.  He should be better known outside of Russia.  This just scratches the surface.  For a fuller account,  get a hold of to Prof. Wcislo’s  book.   More good stuff there, and nicely written as well.

3 thoughts on “Count Sergei Witte, 1849-1915: Another Man of Steel

  1. Pingback: Marguerite Steinheil, 1869-1954 : Succès Malgre Scandale | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

    • Good question! You can read about it in his own words:

      “Mme. Spiridonova, nee Ivanenko. She had married Spiridonov, the son of military doctor, when the two of them had been very young. She had a young daughter Sonia. She left her husband and came to Odessa where I met her. After my repeated pleadings, she sued her husband for divorce, to which he agreed, in return for a rather small sum of money. We were married at the Vladimir Church”.

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