Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte

Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte (Russian: Серге́й Ю́льевич Ви́тте, Sergey Yul’evich Vitte[pronounced ви́тэ (‘vitɛ)[1]]) (29 June [O.S. 17 June] 1849  – 13 March [O.S. 28 February] 1915), also known as Sergius Witte, was a highly influential econometrician, minister, and prime minister in Imperial Russia, one of the key figures in the political arena at the end of 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century.[2] Witte served under the last two emperors of Russia, Alexander III and Nicholas II.[3] He was neither a liberal or a conservative; he was guided by reason alone. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) Witte had risen to a position in which he controlled all the traffic passing to the front along the lines of the Odessa Railways. He “tried to give new lease of life to the autocratic and bureaucratic system by measures of a purely technical character, such as railway construction, the artificial promotion of industrial enterprises, and a reform of the monetary system by the establishment of the gold standard” and attracted foreign capital to boost Russia’s industrialization.1 He framed the October Manifesto of 1905, and the accompanying government communication, but was not convinced it would solve Russians problem with the Tsarist autocracy. On 20 October 1905 he became the first Chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers (Prime Minister). Assisted by his Council he designed Russia’s first constitution. Within a few months he fell in disgrace within court circles as a reformer. He resigned before the First Duma assembled. Witte was fully confident that he had resolved the main problem—providing political stability to the regime,[4] but according to him the “peasant problem” would further determine the character of the Duma’s activity.[5]


  • Family and early life
  • Political career
    • 2.1 Minister of Finance
    • 2.2 Diplomatic career
    • 2.3 Chairman of the Council of Ministers
    • 2.4 Member of the State Council
  • Honors
  • Popular culture depictions
  • References
  • Sources
  • External links

Family and early life

Witte’s father Christoph Hendrik Georg Witte descended from a Lutheran Baltic German family[6] and converted to Russian Orthodoxy upon marriage with Yekaterina Fadeyeva. He became a member of the knighthood in Pskov, but moved to Saratov and Tiflis as a civil servant. Sergei was raised on the estate of his mother’s parents.[7] His grandfather was Andrei Mikhailovich Fadeyev, a Governor of Saratov and Privy Councillor of the Caucasus; his grandmother was Princess Helene Dolgoruki. Sergei had two brothers (Alexander and Boris) and two sisters (Olga and Sophia);[8][9]  the mystic Helena Blavatsky was their first cousin. He entered a Tiflis gymnasium, but he took more interest in music, fencing and riding than in studying. Sergei finished Gymnasium I in Kishinev[10] and commenced studying Physico-Mathematical Sciences at the Novorossiysk University in Odessa in 1866, graduating top of his class in 1870.[11]

Witte had initially planned to pursue a career in academia with the aim of becoming a professor in Theoretical Mathematics. 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 Alekseyevich Bobrinsk, then Minister of Ways and Communication, to pursue a career in the railroads. At the direction of the Count, Witte undertook six months of on the job training in a variety of positions on the Odessa Railways in order to gain a practical understanding of Ukrainian Railways operations. At the end of this period he was appointed chief of the traffic office.[12]

After a wreck on the Odessa Railways 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 Railways made such extraordinary efforts towards the transport of troops and war materials in the Russo-Turkish War—he devised a novel system of double-shift working to overcome delays on the line[13]—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 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. Witte gained popularity. 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, 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, which resulted in the appointment of Witte to the position of Director of State Railways.

Political career

Minister of Finance

Witte in the 80’s

Witte served as Russian Director of Railway Affairs within the Finance Ministry from 1889 to 1891; and during this period, he oversaw an ambitious program of railway construction. Until then less than one-fourth of the small railway systems was under direct state control; but Witte set about making the railway service a monopoly of the State. 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 and justified the need for a strong domestic industry, protected from foreign competition by customs barriers. This resulted in a new customs law for Russia in 1891, which spurred an increase in industrialization in Russia towards the turn of the century.

Mathilda Witte, picture by Karl Bulla

Tsar Alexander III appointed him acting Minister of Ways and Communications in 1892.[11] This gave him control of the railroads in Russia and the authority to impose a reform on the tariffs charged. “Russian railroads gradually became perhaps the most economically operated railroads of the world.”.[14] Profits were high: over 100 million gold rubles a year to the government (exact amount unknown due to accounting defects). In 1892 Witte got acquainted with Matilda Ivanovna (Isaakovna) Lisanevich in a theater.[15] Witte began to seek her favour, urging her to divorce her gambling husband and marry him. The marriage was a scandal, not only because Matilda was a divorcee, but also because she was a converted Jew. It cost Witte many of his connections with the upper nobility, but the Tsar protected him.

In August 1892, Witte was appointed to the post of Minister of Finance, a post which he held for the next eleven years. (Until 1905 matters pertaining to industry and commerce were within the province of the Ministry of Finances.) 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. When Alexander III died, he told his son on his deathbed to listen well to Witte, his most capable minister. In 1895, Witte 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 of the Qing Empire. One of the rights secured for Russia was the construction of the China Eastern Railway across northeast China, which greatly shortened the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway to its projected eastern terminus at Vladivostok. However, following the Triple Intervention, Witte strongly opposed the Russian occupation of Liaodong Peninsula and the construction of the naval base at Port Arthur.

In 1896, Witte undertook a major currency reform to place the Russian ruble on the 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.[16] In Summer 1898, he addressed a memorandum to the Tsar,[17] calling for an Agricultural Conference on the reform of the peasant community. This resulted in three years talks about 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. In 1902 his supporter the Minister of Interior Dmitry Sipyagin was assassinated. 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. By 1900 the growth in manufacturing industry has been four times faster than in the preceding five-year period and six times faster than in the decade before that. The external trade in industrial goods was equal to that of Belgium.[18] In 1904 the Union of Liberation was formed demanding economic and political reform.

Witte, in a memorandum, tried to turn the reports of the zemstvo presidents into a condemnation of the Ministry of the Interior.[19] In a conflict on land reform Vyacheslav von Plehve accused him being part of a Jewish-masonic conspiracy.[20] According to Vasily Gurko Witte had dominated the irresolute Tsar and this was the moment to get rid of him. Witte was appointed on 16 August 1903 (O.S.) as chairman of the Committee of Ministers, a position he held until October 1905.[11] 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 and at the court. However, Nicholas V. Riasanovsky states that Witte’s opposition to Russian designs on Korea caused him to resign from government in 1903.[21][22]

Diplomatic career

Negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) — from left to right: the Russians at far side of table are Korostovetz, Nabokov, Witte, Rosen, Plancon; and the Japanese at near side of table are Adachi, Ochiai,Komura, Takahira, Sato. The large conference table is today preserved at the Museum Meiji Mura in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan.

Witte was brought back into the governmental decision-making process to help deal with the civil unrest. Confronted with growing opposition and after consulting with Witte and Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky, the Tsar issued a reform ukase on December 25, 1904 with vague promises.[23] After Bloody Sunday riots of 1905 Witte supplied 500 Rubles, the equivalent of 250 dollar, to Father Gapon in order to leave the country.[24] Witte recommended that a manifesto be issued.[25] Schemes of reform would be elaborated by Goremykin and a committee consisting of elected representatives of the zemstvos and municipal councils under the presidency of Witte. On 3 March the Tsar condemned the revolutionaries. The government issued a strongly worded prohibition of any further agitation in favor of a constitution.[26] By Spring a new political system was beginning to form in Russia. A petition campaign with a wide variety of proposed changes, like ending the war lasted from February to July 1905. In June mutiny broke out on the Russian battleship Potemkin. In July a Zemstvo deputation was send to the Emperor, to implore him to put an end to the bureaucratic system and establish representative government.2

Witte returned to the forefront when he was called upon by the Tsar to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War.[11] 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, Master of the Imperial Court of Russia[27] to the United States, where the peace talks were being held.

Witte is credited with negotiating brilliantly on Russia’s behalf during the Treaty of Portsmouth negotiations. Russia lost little in the final settlement.[11] For his efforts, Witte was created a Count.[28][29] But the loss of the war would perhaps spell the beginning of the end of Imperial Russia.

After this diplomatic success, Witte wrote to the Tsar stressing the urgent need for political reforms at home. On August 9th an Imperial decree was promulgated constituting a national representative assembly with consultative powers.3 The elections would not be direct but would be held in four stages, and qualifications on class and property would exclude much of the intelligentsia and all of the working classes from suffrage. Dissatisfaction with the proposals by Bulygin, the successor of Sviatopolk-Mirsky resulted in numerous protests, and strikes across the country.

Prince Alexey D. Obolensky

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 troops were send out 2,000 times. The Tsar remained quiet impassive and indulgent; he spend most of that autumn hunting.[30] Witte told Nicholas II, “that the country was at the verge of a cataclysmic revolution”. Trepov was ordered to take drastic measures to stop the revolutionary activity. According to Orlando Figes the Tsar asked his uncle Grand Duke Nicholas to assume the role of dictator. “But the Grand Duke … took out a revolver and threatened to shoot himself there and then if the Tsar refused to endorse Witte’s memorandum.” Nicholas II had no choice but to make a number of steps in the constitutional liberal direction.[31] The Tsar accepted the draft, hurriedly outlined by Aleksei D. Obolensky,[32][33] known as the October Manifesto. This promised to grant civil liberties as freedom of conscience, speech, freedom of association, constitutional order, representative government and the establishment of a Imperial Duma.[34] As the Duma was only a consultative body, the Council of Ministers or the Tsar had the right to block certain proposals, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough;[35] nothing on universal suffrage.

Chairman of the Council of Ministers

After his skilful diplomacy Witte was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers, the equivalent of Prime Minister, and formed Sergei Witte’s Cabinet, not belonging to any party, as there were none. No longer the Tsar was the head of the government. “Immediately upon my nomination as President of the Imperial Council I made it clear that the Procurator of the Most Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, could not remain in office, for he definitely represented the past” and was replaced by Obolensky. Trepov and Bulygin were dismissed, and after many discussions Durnovo became Minister of Interior on 1 January. His appointment seems one of the greatest errors Witte made during his administration. According to Harold Williams: “That government was almost paralyzed from the beginning. Witte acted immediately by urging the release of political prisones and the lifting of censorship laws.”[36] Alexander Guchkov and Dmitry Shipov refused to work with the reactionary Durnovo and to support the government. On 26 October (O.S.) the Tsar appointed Trepov Master of the Palace without consulting Witte, and had daily contact with the Emperor; his influence at court was paramount. “In addition mass violence broke out in the days following the issuance of the October Manifesto. The major source of the unrest was unrelated to the October Manifesto. It took the form of attacks by gangs in the cities on the Jews. In general the authorities ignored the attacks.[37] On 8 November the sailors in Kronstadt mutinied. In the same month the border provinces were clearly taking advantage of the weakening of Central Russia to show their teeth:

The dominating element of the Empire, the Russians, fall into three distinct ethnic branches: the Great, the Little, and the White Russians, and 35 per cent, of the population is non-Russian. It is impossible to rule such a country and ignore the national aspirations of its varied non-Russian national groups, which largely make up the population of the Great Empire. The policy of converting all Russian subjects into "true Russians" is not the ideal which will weld all the heterogeneous elements of the Empire into one body politic. It might be better for us Russians, I concede, if Russia were a nationally uniform country and not a heterogeneous Empire. To achieve that goal there is but one way, namely to give up our border provinces, for these will never put up with the policy of ruthless Russification. But that measure our ruler will, of course, never consider.[38]

On 10 November Russian Poland was placed under martial law.

Lev Kyrillovich Naryshkin was born in 1905, a portrait by Valentin Serov.

Witte’s position was not established. The Liberals remained obdurate and refused to be cajoled. The Peasants Union asked the Russian people not make redemption payments to the government and withdraw their deposits from bank that might be subject to goverment action.[39] He promised an eight hour working day and tried to secure vital loans from France to keep the “regime” from bankrupty.[40]Witte send his envoy to the Rothschild bank; “they would willingly render full assistance to the loan, but that they would not be in a position to do so until the Russian Government had enacted legal measures tending to improve the conditions of the Jews in Russia. As I deemed it beneath our dignity to connect the solution of our Jewish question with the loan, I decided to give up my intention of securing the participation of the Rothschilds.”[41] On 21 November Lenin arrived in St Petersburg. On 16 DecemberTrotsky and the rest of the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet were arrested.[42] The Minister of Agriculture Nikolai Kutler resigned in February 1906; Witte refused to appoint Alexander Krivoshein. In the next few weeks changes and additions to the fundamental laws were made, so that the Emperor was confirmed as the dictator of foreign policies and the supreme commander of the army and navy; the ministers remained responsible solely to Nicholas II, not to the Duma. The “peasant question” or land reforms was a hot issue; the influence of the “Duma of Public Anger” had to be limited according to Goremykin and Dmitri Trepov. The Bolsheviks boycotted the coming election. When Witte discovered that Nicholas never intended to honour these concessions he resigned as Chairman of the Council of Ministers. The position and influence of General Trepov, Grand Duke Nicholas, the Black Hundreds and overwhelming victories by the Kadets in the Russian legislative election, 1906, forced Witte on 14th to resign, which was announced 22 April 1906 (O.S.).

Member of the State Council

Witte continued in Russian politics as a member of the State Council but never again obtained an administrative role in the government. He was 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.[43][44] During the winter season Witte lived in Biarritz, started his Memoirs, [45] but returned to St Petersburg in 1908.

Witte’s mansion on Kamenno ostrovsky Prospekt in St Petersburg

During the July Crisis in 1914, Grigori Rasputin and Witte desperately urged the Tsar not to enter the conflict and warned that Europe faced calamity if Russia became involved. The advice went unheeded; the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue complained at the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sazonov. According to Victor Chernov only Witte had the manliness to state publictly: “My practical conclusion is that we must liquidate this mad adventure as quickly as possile”.[V. Chernov (1936) The Great Russian Revolution, p. 43]  Witte died shortly afterwards due to Meningitis or a brain tumor at his home in St. Petersburg. His third class funeral was held at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. Witte had no children, but he adopted his wife’s. According to Edvard Radzinsky Witte wished the title of count to be given to his grandson L.K. Naryshkin. Nothing is known about him.

Witte’s reputation was burnished in the West when his secret memoirs, completed in 1912 and kept in a bank in Bayonne, not destined to be published while he and his contemporaries were alive, were published in 1921. The original text of these memoirs are held in Columbia University Library’s Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture.[3]


  1. F.L. Ageenko and M.V. Zarva, Slovar’ udarenii (Moscow: Russkii yazyk, 1984), p. 547.
  3. a b Harcave, Sidney. (2004). Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography, p. xiii.
  5.  Witte’s Memoirs, p. 359
  6. His ancestors lived in Friedrichstadt in Courland and not in Holstein.[1]
  7. Prominent Russians
  8.  [2]
  9.  [3]
  10. (Russian)
  11. a b c d e Harcave, p. 33.
  12. Harcave, p. 42.
  14. Boublikoff, p. 313
  16. B.V. Ananich & R.S. Ganelin (1996) Nicholas II, p. 378. In: D.J. Raleigh: The Emperors and Empresses of Russia. Rediscovering the Romanovs. The New Russian History Series.
  17. Witte’s Memoirs, p. 211-215
  19. The Cambridge Modern History, Volume 14
  21. Riasanovsky, N.V. (1977) A History of Russia, p. 446
  22. Jump up^ Massie, Robert K. (1967). Nicholas and Alexandra (1st Ballantine ed.).Ballantine Books. p. 90. ISBN 0-345-43831-0.
  23. Harold Williams , Shadow of Democracy, p. 11, 22
  24. Memoirs of Count Witte, p. 254
  25. Williams, p. 77
  26. Williams, p. 22-23
  27. “Text of Treaty; Signed by the Emperor of Japan and Czar of Russia,” New York Times. October 17, 1905.
  28. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra P.97
  30. O. Figes A People’s Tragedy, p. 191
  33. Witte’s Memoirs, p. 241
  36. Williams, p. 166
  37. Williams, p. 166
  38. Witte’s Memoirs, p. 265
  39. Williams, p. 220
  41. Witte’s Memoirs, p. 293-294
  43. «ПОКУШЕНИЕ НА МОЮ ЖИЗНЬ», «Воспоминания» С. Ю. Витте, т. II-ой, 1922 г. Книгоиздат. «Слово» (Russian)
  44. Покушение на графа Витте (2011-10-15), сканер копии — Юрий Штенгель (Russian)


  1. Harold Whitmore Williams (1915) Russia of the Russians, p. 49
  2. Harold Whitmore Williams (1915) Russia of the Russians, p. 67
  3. Harold Whitmore Williams (1915) Russia of the Russians, p. 67