Sergei Yulevich Witte


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(b. Tiflis, 17 June 1849, d. St Petersburg 13 Mar. 1915)

Russian; Russian Minister of Transport and of Finance 1892–1903, Prime Minister 1903–6 Witte was brought up in Tiflis, his father being of Dutch origin, his mother Russian, the daughter of a governor. He studied mathematics at university in Odessa and entered government service, becoming an expert on transport economics. Later he became a successful railway manager. In 1889 he was invited to set up a railway department within the Ministry of Finance to develop the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 1892 he was made Minister of Transport and then Minister of Finance, superintending the industrialization boom of the 1890s which made Russia a world industrial power. The ‘Witte System’ was a neo-mercantilist policy based on attracting foreign investment and loans by high protectionist tariffs, budgetary stability, putting the rouble on the gold standard (in 1897) and high taxation (he created the state spirits monopoly in 1894). He introduced labour legislation and urged (but never achieved) the abolition of the commune system in agriculture. In 1903 he became Prime Minister. He opposed the emperor's far-eastern policy which led to the war with Japan, but in 1905 negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended it. During the revolution of 1905 he combined suppression of popular unrest with advocacy of concessions to the middle classes. He compiled the ‘October Manifesto’ which prepared the way for Russia's first elected parliament, the Duma. He became Russia's first constitutional premier, but, increasingly criticized by the Tsar and his conservative allies and also by dissatisfied liberals, he was suddenly dismissed in 1906, and replaced by Stolypin. He remained politically active as an independent member of the State Council until his death in Petrograd in 1915. His remarkable talents were undermined by the mistrust of the Tsar and by the left-right polarization which made his moderate conservative position difficult to sustain.

Subjects: World History — Politics.

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