The Russian statesman Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte (1849-1915) is noted for his policy of Russian industrialization, for his role in negotiating the Peace of Portsmouth between Russia and Japan, and for his formulation of the Manifesto of October 1905.
Sergei Witte was born in Tiflis. His parents gave him little attention, and he was exposed to the harmful influences of his foster-mother and to her drunkard husband and to tutors of questionable character. He was a poor student in the local classical gymnasium. At the age of 17 Witte received the certificate of maturity which entitled him to enter a university, and he matriculated in the faculty of physico-mathematical sciences at the University of Odessa.
Upon finishing his studies Witte entered the service of the Odessa government railroad. In 1877, when war broke out between Russia and Turkey, he was named head of the Odessa railroad. It was of strategic importance, for the railroad transported soldiers to the front. After the war Witte was appointed director of the exploitation department of the newly formed railroad system. His office was in St. Petersburg, and there he married Madame Spiridonov, a beautiful woman and the daughter of the marshal of the nobility of the Chernigov Province. Since the northwestern railroads were running at a deficit, Witte was named director of southwestern railroads in order to reorganize the entire management of the roads through centralization. In 1892 he was appointed minister of ways of communication. His administration in this capacity lasted some 6 months. He was then appointed minister of finance by Alexander III and served in that powerful post until Nicholas II dismissed him in 1903.
Like Peter the Great, Witte believed that Russia must industrialize. He held that Russia must avoid war and that domestic policy must be coordinated with foreign policy. He was realistic in opposing Asian wars and the Japanese-Russian war. He erred, however, in the notion that he could control the general bureaucracy of the army.
Witte advocated autocracy and a strong state. His program included not only economic but also political reforms. He was a friend of the middle class engaged in industry and thus made many enemies among the nobility. He believed that, if sacrifices had to be made so that Russia would be industrially strong, the peasants could be exploited because in the future their standard of living would rise.
Witte, through the construction of railroads, provided necessary links and stimulants to industry and lowered the prices. The state took over the railroads in order to achieve greater efficiency. Witte believed in foreign investments and was not afraid of increasing government debt. He wanted a favorable balance of trade and a stable currency, convertible and based on gold. In 1897 he put Russia on the gold standard to attract investments. He also put a high tariff on imports in order to protect Russian production and to overcome industrial backwardness. He believed that grain would serve as the currency to pay for Russian imports. Russia, however, had to compete with America, Australia, and Argentina, which produced grain more cheaply. Witte tried to solve this problem by exploiting the peasants ruthlessly.
On July 29, 1905, Witte was appointed chief plenipotentiary for the purpose of conducting a peace treaty with Japan at Portsmouth, N.H. He negotiated a peace with Japan on Sept. 5, 1905. Russia recognized Japanese hegemony in Korea, the annexation of southern Sakhalin, and the lease of the Liotung Peninsula and the southern Manchurian railway. Although these concessions were large, the cost of peace did not seem excessive in light of the domestic problems which the government was facing at home. For his services he was given the title of count.
When Witte had returned from making peace at Portsmouth, he found the country torn by strikes, demonstrations, and mutiny in the armed forces. When the general strike of October took place, he advised Nicholas II to decide between a constitutional regime and a military dictatorship, but informed the Czar that he would take part only in the former. On Oct. 30, 1905, Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto, which was drafted by Witte, and simultaneously named Witte Russia's first prime minister. The October Manifesto recognized the civil liberties of the Russian people; it called for the election of a state Duma; it established as a rule that no law should be passed without its confirmation by the Duma.
Witte served as prime minister during a very difficult period and was forced to resign in May 1906; he was replaced by a more conservative premier. Witte died in St. Petersburg on March 12, 1915.
The Memoirs of Count Witte (trans. 1921) provides a good picture of the man and his times. Theodore H. Von Laue, Sergei Witte and the Industrialization of Russia (1963), gives an account of the impact of the reforms enacted by Witte. For a good discussion of the general historical period and Witte's career see Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 1890-1918 (1966).