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.
The present movement for freedom is not of new birth. Its roots are imbedded in centuries of Russian history. 'Freedom' must become the slogan of the government. No other possibility for the salvation of the state exists. The march of historical progress cannot be halted. The idea of civil liberty will triumph if not through reform then by the path of revolution.
The government must be ready to proceed along constitutional lines. The government must sincerely and openly strive for the well-being of the state and not endeavour to protect this or that type of government. There is no alternative. The government must either place itself at the head of the movement which has gripped the country or it must relinquish it to the elementary forces to tear it to pieces.
Through all these horrible days, I constantly met Witte. We very often met in the early morning to part only in the evening when night fell. There were only two ways open; to find an energetic soldier and crush the rebellion by sheer force. That would mean rivers of blood, and in the end we would be where had started. The other way out would be to give to the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have laws conformed by a State Duma - that of course would be a constitution. Witte defends this very energetically.
Almost everybody I had an opportunity of consulting, is of the same opinion. Witte put it quite clearly to me that he would accept the Presidency of the Council of Ministers only on the condition that his programme was agreed to, and his actions not interfered with. We discussed it for two days and in the end, invoking God's help I signed. This terrible decision which nevertheless I took quite consciously. I had no one to rely on except honest Trepov. There was no other way out but to cross oneself and give what everyone was asking for.
As long as I live, I will never trust that man (Witte) again with the smallest thing. I had quite enough of last year's experiment. It is still like a nightmare to me.
We are given a Witte, but Trepov remains; we are given a constitution, but absolutism remains. All is given and nothing is given. The proletariat knows what it wants and what it doesn't want. It doesn't want the police hooligan Trepov, nor the liberal mediator Witte - neither the jaws of a wolf nor the tail of a fox. It doesn't want Cossack whips wrapped up in a constitution.
After Sipyagin we saw the same position occupied by Plehve, then by Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky, then Bulygin, then Witte. All of them, one after the other, arrived with the firm intention of putting an end to sedition, restoring the lost prestige of authority, maintaining the foundations of the state - and every one of them, each in his own way, opened the floodgates of revolution and was himself swept away by its current.
Sedition grew as though according to a majestic plan, constantly expanding its territory, reinforcing its positions and demolishing obstacle after obstacle; while against the backdrop of this tremendous effort, with its inner rhythm and its unconscious genius, appeared a series of little mannequins of state power, issuing new laws, contracting new debts, firing at workers, ruining peasants - and, as a result, sinking the governmental authority which they sought to protect more and more deeply into a bog of frantic impotence.
Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes - but in vain.
Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?
Sipyagin fell to a revolutionary's bullet. Plehve was torn to pieces by a bomb. Svyatopolk-Mirsky was transformed into a political corpse on January 9. Bulygin was thrown out, like an old boot, by the October strikes. Count Witte, utterly exhausted by workers' and soldiers' risings, fell without glory, having stumbled on the threshold of the State Duma which he himself had created.
Count Witte never swerved from his conviction, firstly, that Russia must avoid the war at all costs, and secondly, that she must work for economic friendship with France and Germany to counteract the preponderance of England. Nicholas detested him, and now more than ever; but on March 13th Witte died suddenly.
The other formidable opponent still remained. Rasputin was opposed to the war for reasons as good as Witte's. He was for peace between all nations and between all religions. He claimed to have averted was both in 1909 and in 1912, and his claim was believed by others.