Witte, Serge Julievich, Count
WITTE, SERGE JULIEVICH, COUNT (1849- ), Russian statesman, was born at Tiflis, where his father (of Dutch extraction) was a member of the Viceregal Council of the Caucasus. His mother was a lady of the Fadeyev family, by whom he was brought up as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church and thoroughly imbued with nationalist feeling in the Russian sense of the term. After completing his studies at Odessa University, in the faculty of mathematics and physical science, and devoting some time to journalism in close relations with the Slavophils and M. Katkov, he entered in 1877 the service of the Odessa State railway, and so distinguished himself in the transport operations necessitated by the Turkish campaign of 1877- 1878, that he was soon afterwards appointed general traffic manager of the South- Western railway of Russia and member of an Imperial commission which had to study the whole question of railway construction and management throughout WITTELSBACH (FAMILY)
the empire. His speciality was an intimate acquaintance with the problem of railway rates in connexion with the general economic development of the country, and in 1884 he published a work on the subject which attracted some attention in the official world. Among those who had discovered his exceptional ability in matters of that kind was M. Vishnegradski, minister of finance, who appointed him head of the railway department in the finance ministry. In 1892 he was promoted to be minister of ways of communication, and in the following year, on the retirement of Vishnegradski, he succeeded him as minister of finance. In this important post he displayed extraordinary activity. He was an ardent disciple of Friedrich List and sought to develop home industries by means of moderate protection and the introduction of foreign capital for industrial purposes. At the same time he succeeded by drastic measures in putting a stop to the great fluctuations in the value of the paper currency and in resuming specie payments. The rapid extension of the railway system was also largely due to his energy and financial ingenuity, and he embarked on a crusade against the evils of drunkenness by organizing a government monopoly for the sale of alcohol. In the region of foreign policy he greatly contributed to the extension of Russian influence in northern China and Persia. Naturally of a combative temperament, and endowed with a persevering tenacity rare among his countrymen, he struggled for what he considered the liberation of his country from the economic bondage of foreign nations. Germany was, in his opinion, the neighbour whose aggressive tendencies had to be specially resisted. He was therefore not at all persona grata in Berlin, but the German imperial authorities learned by experience that he was an opponent to be respected, who understood thoroughly the interests of his country, _ and was quite capable of adopting if necessary a vigorous policy of reprisals. During his ten years' tenure of the finance ministry he nearly doubled the revenues of the empire, but at the same time he made for himself, by his policy and his personal characteristics, a host of enemies. He was transferred, therefore, in 1903 from the influential post of finance minister to the ornamental position of president of the committee of ministers. The object was to deprive him of any real political influence, but circumstances brought about a different result. The disasters of the war with Japan, and the rising tide of revolutionary agitation, compelled the government to think of appeasing popular discontent by granting administrative reforms, and the reform projects were revised and amended by the body over which M. Witte presided. Naturally the influence of a strong man made itself felt, and the president became virtually prime minister; but, before he had advanced far in this legislative work, he was suddenly transformed into a diplomatist and sent to Portsmouth, N. H., U.S.A., in August 1005, to negotiate terms of peace with the Japanese delegates. In these negotiations he showed great energy and decision, and contributed largely to bringing about the peace. On his return to St Petersburg he had to deal, as president of the first ministry under the new constitutional regime, with a very difficult political situation (see Russia: History); he was no longer able to obtain support, and early in 1906 he retired into private life.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)