Sergei Witte-Fortune’s Favorite or Great Politician?

Dude liked his railroads.

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 Russia 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.


Laparenok, Leonid. “Prominent Russians: Sergei Witte.” Sergei Witte – Russiapedia Politics and Society Prominent Russians. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <>.

Rise of count witte — A romance. (1905, Nov 05). New York Times (1857-1922) Retrieved from

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3 Responses to Sergei Witte-Fortune’s Favorite or Great Politician?

  1. A. Nelson says:

    Thanks for this background on Witte and his role in the major developments of the late Imperial period. I’m intrigued by the contrasting perspectives on his character you noticed in your sources. Why do you think they are different?

    • kathaskew says:

      There was a small but significant typo in the third to last paragraph. Russia indeed lost the war.

      As for the two differing perspectives, off the top of my head, I want to say it’s the difference between one being a primary and the other being a secondary source. The news article was published during Witte’s time, while the russiapedia article was written a century later. A century gives plenty of time for people to analyze Witte’s life and policies and published articles and books on that matter. The russiapedia had many more sources to research off of. While the news article probably had very little information available to the author, so attributed many of Witte’s accomplishments to luck.
      Could also be due to biases from the authors.

  2. A. Nelson says:

    Clarify that Russia lost the war (in 3rd paragraph from the end)?

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