9 September, 2013
Count Sergei Witte was possibly one of the most influential of all policy makers before, during and after the 1905 Revolution. A true academic, he originally wanted to pursue a career as a professor, but after his noble family deemed his choice unacceptable, he found work in controlling the railroads. He eventually became the Director of Railway Affairs and oversaw much of the important construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. His most important job, however, would be Russia’s Minister of Finance under Tsar Alexander III. He greatly respected the Tsar, but when it came time to serving his son, Tsar Nicholas II, Witte portrayed in attitude that was condescending to the indecisive Tsar. The above photograph depicts Witte and the Tsar and shows just how much influence he had during his years as Nicholas II’s Minister of Finance.
There were many issues both at home in Russia and abroad during the time of Witte’s service, but many of his policies were very successful. Although Capitalist and Russia are rarely spoken together in the same sentence, Witte implemented many reforms that very considered Capitalist during his terms. Witte truly believed that Russia could find a spot among the ranks of other European countries, and looked to industrialization as his means. Another important reform that had lasting effects was stabilizing the Russian Ruble by putting the country on the gold standard. Witte wanted Russia to find foreign markets and he looked to the Far East to accomplish this. He was able to negotiate with China the building of the China-East Railway. This portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway would go through Manchuria and expedite service to Vladivostok. Witte was able to achieve a high level of support from the public, specifically through the press, but unfortunately he would never be accepted by the upper class (despite being one of them). Other Nobles did not think very highly of his level of class, and he lost a lot of support when he took a former Jewish divorcee as his second wife. Nicholas II and other political rivals were able to silence him in 1903 by “promoting” him to the Chairman of Committee of Ministers, a position with little power.
Unfortunately for Witte, Nicholas, and the rest of Russia, his lack of influence was just as important as his influence. He greatly opposed the Li-Lobanov Treaty, which was a major precursor to the Russo-Japanese War. Although the acquisition of Port Arthur was something that the Russians desperately wanted, the treaty was viewed in a very hostile way by Japan. The defeat that Russia eventually received at the hands of the Japanese was one of the biggest ego blows that the Empire had ever suffered. During the 1905 Revolution, he argued for a complete change in the political system. Witte pushed for an elected parliament, a constitutional monarchy, and a Bill of Rights. The tsar was very reluctant, but eventually agreed to political reforms in what was known as the October Manifesto. The Manifesto was not a constitution, but it became a major predecessor to an eventual constitution. Witte was forced to resign from his position in 1906 by the left-wing of the Duma. He remained an active member of the State Council, and when World War I eventually broke out, he was an active speaker in ending Russia’s involvement.
Witte’s significance during the uncertain years at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth Century are undeniable. He was active in every major step that Russia took from industrialization under Alexander III, stabilizing the economy under Nicholas II, negotiating a peace treaty after the Russo-Japanese War, establishing the October Manifesto, and witnessing the beginning of World War I. It seems that if Witte was not stuck with the ineffective Nicholas II as the tsar for whom he worked for, Russian history under Witte could have been completely different. The New York Times, often documented the strained nature of the Tsar and his Minister of Finance. Before the war with Japan, Russia experienced strong financial gains, but after the defeat they entered a terrible recession. The October Manifesto that Witte truly believed would secure political stability and representation in Russia was eventually put down by Nicholas II. Finally, Russia’s entry into World War I was the final bullet in the pressure cooker of a situation that lead to the 1917 Revolution.
Information acquired on Count Sergei Witte was taken from:
and also from the text, Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
The opening photo was also taken from the information site and was originally posted on www.museum.ru.
In addition, one of the New York Times articles that got me interested in Witte was,
“HAD ENOUGH, SAYS WITTE.” New York Times (1857-1922): 9. Oct 13 1906. ProQuest. Web. 8 Sep. 2013 .