Witte, Sergei
(1849–1915)
   An outstanding statesman who played a decisive role in the industrialization of the Russian Empire before World War I. Witte was born and had spent his childhood in the Caucasus, studied mathematics at the Novorossiysk University in Odessa, and in the 1870s and 1880s started a career in different private enterprises. Because of his administrative skills he was appointed as director of railroad affairs within the ministry of finance between 1889 and 1891 and one year later became minister for transportation.
   Witte recognized that an industrialization of the vast empire was not thinkable without railroad construction, and in 1891 he started the greatest project during his career, the construction of Russia’s transcontinental railroad, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and the Chinese Eastern Railway through northern Manchuria. In 1892, Witte also took over the ministry of finance in which portfolio he attracted loans from France and foreign investment, and he also introduced the gold standard in the Russian Empire in 1897. Under his supervision Russia experienced an economic boom, especially in the sectors of transportation and resource extraction. Because of his strong engagement for an accelerated modernization and gradual penetration of Manchuria, Witte opposed an aggressive policy toward Japan and was ousted from his position in 1903. After Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, he was instructed by Tsar Nicholas II to negotiate the Treaty of Portsmouth in which Russia lost her Great Power status in East Asia. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Witte advised Nicholas to issue the October Manifesto and was appointed prime minister to test his own counsel. Witte put a new constitution and the convocation of Russia’s first parliament, the Duma, into action yet simultaneously managed to secure an Anglo-French loan of £80 million, which made the government less dependent on the Duma for finance, and was vigorous in the repression of all open rebellion. Yet all this came too late; as radical leftwing parties got the upper hand in the Duma, Witte lost the support of Nicholas and political reactionaries, and was forced to resign. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Witte, remembering the disaster of 1905, warned that the Russian Empire should avoid another conflict or face unavoidable decline.
   FURTHER READING:
    Sidney, Harcave. Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia: A Biography . Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.
   EVA-MARIA STOLBERG

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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