Sergei Witte was born in Tiflis, Georgia, on 29th June, 1849. He attended university in Odessa where he specialized in mathematics.
After graduating in 1870 he became involved in the railway industry. A successful railway executive, Witte entered the Russian government in 1889 when he was appointed as Director of the Department of Railway Affairs.
By 1893 he became Minister of Finance. Witte combined his experience in the railway industry with a strong interest in foreign policy. He encouraged the expansion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and organized the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Witte also played an important role in helping to increase the speed of Russia's industrial development. Witte was much admired in Russia but he made some powerful enemies, including Vyacheslav Plehve, Minister of the Interior. In August, 1903, Plehve passed on documents to Nicholas II that Witte was part of a Jewish conspiracy. As a result Witte was removed as Minister of Finance.
In June, 1905, Witte was asked to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War. The Tsar was pleased with his performance and was brought into the government to help solve the industrial unrest that had followed Bloody Sunday.
In June, 1905, the Potemkin Mutiny took place and industrial workers all over Russia went on strike. In October, 1905, the railwaymen went on strike which paralyzed the whole Russian railway network. Later that month, Leon Trotsky and other Mensheviks established the St. Petersburg Soviet. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised Nicholas II to make concessions. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of the State Duma.
As this was only a consultative body, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough. Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries denounced the plan. In December, 1905, Trotsky and the rest of the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet were arrested. Others followed and gradually Nicholas II and his government regained control of the situation.
Witte's liberal policies had upset the conservatives in Russia and the Tsar once again came under pressure to dismiss his Chief Minister. Nicholas II, who was beginning to have doubts about the reforms that had been introduced, forced Witte to resign in April, 1906.
In his retirement Witte wrote his memoirs and continued to express his views on politics. In 1914 he opposed Russian entry into the First World War and later favoured peace negotiations with the German government.
Sergei Witte died in Petrograd on 13th March, 1915.