Sergei Witte - “a man marked by state calling”

29 June 2020

June 29 marks the 171th birthday of Sergei Witte, Minister of Railways, Minister of Finance, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Chairman of the Council of Ministers - one of the largest political and economic reformers in Russia, who has become a kind of symbol of the state system of his time.

The Presidential Library provides access to electronic copies of various materials of the 19th – 21st centuries that spotlight the life and career of a famous dignitary: research papers, original documents, rare photographs, memoirs and letters of Witte himself, which are available on the institution’s portal.

The Russian publicist Vasily Vodovozov in his work “Count S. Yu. Witte and Emperor Nicholas II” (1922) says: “Witte was born in Tiflis in 1849 and spent his childhood in the Caucasus. His ancestors were Dutch, who moved to the Baltic provinces back in the Swedish era; his father was from Ostsey provinces, although he belonged to the nobility of the Pskov lips. His mother, on the contrary, was Russian; her father was A. M. Fadeev, who at one time was the Saratov vice-governor, and then went to serve in the Caucasus...; her mother was from the family of Princes Dolgorukye”.

Sergei passed the exam for the gymnasium course as an external student and continued his studies in Odessa. According to the "Encyclopedic Dictionary" (1892), "at the end of the course at the Novorossiysk University with a degree of candidate of physical and mathematical sciences, W. devoted himself to railway activities.

In 1879, Witte transferred to serve in St. Petersburg, then to Kiev. In March 1889 he was appointed head of the newly formed Department of Railways of the Ministry of Finance. Witte, who was promoted to state councilor, lost more than 10 times in his annual salary when he switched to public service. In order to partially compensate for this, Alexander III established Witte a supplement to his salary from the emperor’s personal funds, and also appointed him payments from the treasury - the so-called “canteens” and “apartment”.

According to the lawyer and publicist Joseph Hessen, the author of "Introductory remarks" to "Memoirs" (1923), "... from the very beginning of his state career, Witte attracted attention with his exceptional natural talents. Whatever place he occupied, he made it noticeable and everywhere left a bright trace of his activity and indefatigable initiative. Therefore, there was nothing accidental in his career, he steadily rose, had to sooner or later reach the post of minister”. And so it happened. In February 1892, he was appointed Minister of Railways, and in August of the same year, Minister of Finance.

The need to update the Russian economy at the end of the 19th century was obvious. The Ministry of Finance, led by Sergei Witte, also dealt with this task.

He had been holding this post for 11 years, then even more honorable posts and assignments followed. In 1903, Witte became chairman of the Committee of Ministers, signed the Portsmouth Peace Treaty with Japan, for which Nicholas II granted him the title of Count. From October 1905 to April 1906, Witte was chairman of the reformed Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire. However, the court intrigues and the reactionary nature of the authorities lead to the fact that, in fact, Witte is out of work.

Witte actively contributed to the development of Russian industry and the economy. His policy of accelerating economic development relied on attracting foreign capital to industry, banks and government loans. For example, in 1894 and 1904 profitable trade agreements were concluded with Germany. Witte was the initiator of the introduction of the wine monopoly, the conduct of monetary reform, and the construction of the Siberian Railway. In domestic politics, he adhered to conservative views and sought to strengthen the autocracy, was a supporter of the stiff suppression of armed uprisings against the government, but for most of the nobility and the ruling bureaucracy, his position seemed too liberal.

Despite the fact that, according to a modern researcher, historian Sergei Samonov, in an abstract of the dissertation “Minister of Finance S. Yu. Witte and his policy in the public opinion of Russia (1892–1903)” (2008), “Witte’s reforms led to large-scale changes in the socio-economic structure of society, influenced the dynamics of the development of the productive forces of the economy, had significant political consequences” he was forced to resign at his own request in 1906.

“Witte was decidedly out of court for everyone; rejected by the authorities, he was rejected by society and left abandoned by everyone”, - is the opinion of the lawyer Vasily Maklakov in his book “Power and the Public at the Sunset of Old Russia” (1936).

The complex and ambiguous attitude of contemporaries to the personality and activities of Sergei Witte does not reduce the significance and scale of his role in the history of Russia. “Witte invested in matters of historical significance not as an accidental figure who fell a happy lot, but as a person marked by state vocation”, - said Pyotr Struve in his article.

Sergei Witte died on March 13 (February 28, old style) 1915 in his mansion on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt in Petrograd. He was buried at the Lazarevsky cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.