Reviews On the desirability of industrial capitalism and autocracy. A Russian road to modernization

Francis W. Wcislo, Tales of Imperial Russia, The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849–1915, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 314 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 44-45, Baltic Worlds 4 2011
Published on on January 18, 2012

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Ilya Repin’s large oil painting, Ceremonial Session of the State Council, hangs at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg in a spacious, sunken gallery (above: 400 x 877 cm). Bigger than most battle paintings, the oil covers an entire long wall. The State Council, a sort of combined senate and supreme court in autocratically governed Russia, is receiving a speech by Minister of the Interior von Plehve, who was later murdered. The time is a year or two into the 1900s, and the State Council is celebrating its tenth year of existence. Grand dukes and high-ranking dignitaries listen apathetically to the speaker standing in front of them. The people in the picture corresponded to actual living people; the artist made detailed studies of the individuals, some of which cover the other walls of the gallery. Of the men in these drawings, all but one are in uniform. The exception is Sergei Witte, the Tsar’s minister of finance. He is portrayed in a white, three-piece suit, his gaze moving beyond the room, a man of the new era, being regarded by his master with a hint of displeasure.

A similar Repin portrait of Witte, painted a few years later, hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It adorns the cover of the biography by Francis W. Wcislo, Tales of Imperial Russia. If Dominic Lieven allowed a detail from the monumental painting in St. Petersburg to be the cover illustration for his major study of the ruling classes in late Imperial Russia1, Wcislo has, with his choice of both cover art and artist, emphasized that this person, who was generally regarded under Nicholas and his predecessor as the greatest Russian statesman of his time, must receive a worthy and fitting representation. He, this Witte, was later known as “Russia’s Bismarck” and the German “Iron Chancellor” was doubtlessly someone Witte considered a role model. But just like Bismarck, whose leadership of the country was strongly tied to and dependent on his king and kaiser, and who fell hard when a new ruler took the throne, Witte’s status as the first among the Tsar’s liege men became untenable about ten years after the death of Alexander III, when Witte, then the prime minister, had no choice but to shoulder responsibility for the Russian defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the peace negotiations after the war, and the civil unrest among the Russian working class. He was first given the title of count and then his walking papers, relegated to an obscure role as an adviser in the Imperial treasury administration.

During the last ten relatively uneventful years of his life, he dictated lengthy memoirs aimed at vindicating himself in the eyes of posterity and defending his intimate collaboration with Alexander. He no doubt fantasized about a comeback. Such a notion never would have crossed the bristly and indecisive Nicholas’s mind. His father and predecessor had been a relatively crude, uneducated fellow who liked Witte’s objective and candid ways; in his memoirs, the slanderous and heavy-handed minister would deal harshly with his contemporary colleagues and competitors for Imperial grace and favor. It is precisely these published memoirs that Wcislo has used as the primary source for his depiction of the ultimate careerist in a multinational, caesaro-bureaucratic mega-empire, which throughout Witte’s active years was in a state of constant expansion and seemingly entrenched backwardness. His task became to employ the oppressive tactics of the despot to keep all the disparate parts in some kind of balance and to use the state baton to direct the flows of capital, especially foreign capital, towards their right utilization. He became the conductor of organized state capitalism, a social engineer of extraordinary skill under extremely authoritarian conditions. It is the dreams and fantasies of such a person, his ambitions and self-image, that Wcislo is trying to capture. It is Sergei Witte’s own story, or stories, that he is seeking to construct and interpret.

Under autocracy, political leadership necessarily took on a bureaucratic form, and Witte seems to come relatively close to the archetype of a rationally acting Weberian civil servant. His background and education were ideally suited to the purpose. His forebears on both the maternal and paternal sides had been Imperial officials in the provinces, just a touch below the highest level. His father was of the lesser nobility, with roots in the Baltic-German lands and, further back, in the Netherlands, while his mother was descended from a Russian princely family in decline (the Dolgorukis). As aristocrats, they were enlightened, internationally minded, and had a clear understanding of their role as Europeans — Russians, that is — in their dealings with conquered peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia: one must certainly tame and civilize, but the goal was not to create equitable relations, but rather to regulate into existence hierarchies that would endure and ensure the function of traditional rule. A kind of frontier atmosphere prevailed. This was essentially the same view embraced by the governments of other European colonial powers; the difference, of course, being that the empire of the Russian realm was contained within its own borders and not across the seas. Accordingly, the disruptive elements on the periphery had more serious repercussions for the exercise of central power than they did in Western imperialist nations. This, in turn, demanded a completely different overview, control, and subtle sensitivity. The slightest error could be devastating and end up devouring resources sorely needed elsewhere for investments in things like industry and functioning markets. As Geoffrey Hosking has pointed out2, the suppressed regions could be given far too much attention at the expense of the titular nation. This view was actually shared by conservative officials (in Russia and elsewhere), while the more liberally minded stood out as the most dedicated expansionists.

After misspent secondary school years in Tbilisi, Witte was enrolled at the university in Odessa in 1866. Rather than study law, he chose science and mathematics, concentrating on the latter subject. Witte made rapid progress and seriously considered becoming a scientist, a choice of occupation his aristocratic kin considered unthinkable for a person of his social standing. Instead, he turned to business and what was then, around 1870, perhaps the most dynamic industry in Russia, the railroad. The building and operation of rail transport was critical in a gigantic territorial state — to ensure the smooth functioning of markets for surplus goods, to connect the various parts of the realm, and to ensure that its problem children could be kept in check by military means. Witte’s theoretical knowledge was precisely what was needed here. Mathematics was necessary to calculate things like the strength of the rails, transport speeds, suitable traffic frequency, energy use, and optimum passenger numbers. And this well-educated scion of the nobility soon advanced to the position of chief executive for a railway corporation headquartered in Kiev that was intended to connect the European parts of the realm with Asia. In an even more central position, it was he who put his signature on the mighty Trans-Siberian Railway. He was, in a nutshell, a technical success, but also a commercial one. In addition, he had obvious intellectual inclinations — an aunt of his had written noted novels in the first half of the 19th century and Elena Blavatskaia, later active abroad as the famous theosophical guru (“Madame Blavatsky”) who could make the spirits talk and tables dance, was his cousin. In other words: he knew how to behave in the drawing room.

When Alexander III called him to serve in the government offices in St. Petersburg in 1889, Witte was a lion of society, but he was also drawing an incredibly high salary. As he moved up with blinding speed to one of the highest ranking classes (genuine cabinet minister), those at the highest levels made sure to compensate him financially for the losses he made when he left his executive position — a flagrant case of favoritism, it would appear. But Alexander needed Witte. And Witte believed that massively strong imperial power of the kind Alexander wielded was necessary if industrial capitalism was to have a chance in Russia. In the 1880s he had published a couple of economic/political tracts, in the fiscal tradition of Friedrich List, in which he argued vehemently in favor of state interventionism and trade protectionism as unconditional prerequisites for a country with a large and pitiable population to rise out of underdevelopment and lethargy. A little state-provided flogging was what was needed. And yet repression could not be the primary means to the end. Investments in public infrastructure released positive energies that could attract enterprising men. This revolution from above à la Bismarck founded a tradition in Russia that was to endure and be further developed under new political conditions once the story of tsardom had come to an end. With Witte, one might say, science came to power — that is, to the court — in Russia. The communist rulers and courtiers would also lay claim to a scientific approach in their behemoth social experiment (“scientific socialism” and “the technical-scientific revolution”) and in this respect (and others) one can clearly see a continuity from one epoch to another. Unlike so many American presidents, educated in the law, the Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Kosygin were both engineers.3 In their own way, they were technocrats, like Witte, and members of a “new class”, a socialist, ruling bureaucracy that had only rudimentary similarities to the governing leaders of an imagined workers’ state.4 And Russia is still having difficulty shedding this political autocratic heritage.

Now, our Count Witte was by no means a liberal or a democrat. Francis Wcislo makes it clear that Witte did not believe in any sort of division of power and was convinced that autocracy and industrial capitalism were not only compatible, but equally desirable. By rewarding technical expertise and bureaucratic skill instead of connections, in the modernist manner, he may have contributed to alienating the old aristocracy, which had long held an unquestioned monopoly on top posts in the army and public administration, and resented working alongside the new, middle-class elites, from Imperial rule and undermined faith in it — an argument put forth by P. A. Zaionchkovsky and Roberta Thompson Manning. He seems, however, not to have been a sworn enemy of corruption, at times seeing out-and-out bribery as the lubricant needed to keep the machinery running and get people moving. The author argues that Witte also resembled his idol Prince Bismarck “in his continuing obsession with the press and his manipulation of its opinion through cash subsidies to journalists out of ministerial funds”. This statesman was a hard worker, an assiduous writer and convener of meetings, and in that respect he may have differed from the old East Elbe Junker who was wont to take leave of his governmental duties for months at a time to rest on his estate. Nor was Witte quite the lover of food and drink that Bismarck was.5 He was the inspiration for and initiator of the major pan-Russian world expo in Nizhni Novgorod in 1896, intended to put Russia on display as a competitive industrial and imperial nation, a model to learn from, and this undeniably says something about the breadth of his contribution.6

This book about Sergei Witte — about his life and times and work, his thoughts and reflections — is written in an exquisite, perhaps occasionally studied, literary language. It is probably also a sign of the times in historiography that the author has taken the trouble to highlight the many linguistically gifted and scientifically prominent women — researchers, like his grandmother, in one or two cases — who were in Witte’s intimate sphere during his formative years. ≈


  1. Russia’s Rulers under the Old Regime, New Haven & London 1989.
  2. Russia: People and Empire 1552–1917, London 1997.
  3. I am grateful to Professor Gunnar Åselius, Stockholm, for this observation. As Åselius recounts in his dissertation, The “Russian Menace” to Sweden: The Belief System of a Small Power Security Èlite in the Age of Imperialism (Stockholm 1994), Witte traveled in 1894 to the Arctic coast to open a Russian Atlantic port (which was extremely interesting to the government in Stockholm). The Swedish-Norwegian consul, Conrad Falsen, reported that Witte, at the banquet in Archangel in July 1894, aware that the Swedish-Norwegian consul was there, had proposed a toast to the monarch of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, Oscar II, for being such a good neighbor. Eleven years later, the union between Norway and Sweden was dissolved.
  4. See here the discussion in Robert V. Daniels, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Russia, New Haven & London 2007, pp. 76—82; see also Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (Gregory Elliott, ed.), London & New York 2005, particularly chapter 17, “The ‘Administrators’: Bruised but Thriving”.
  5. Otto von Bismarck’s tendency towards laziness has most recently been underscored by Jonathan Steinberg in Bismarck: A Life, Oxford 2011.
  6. Karl Schlögel, “Weltmarkt an der Wolga. Nischni Nowgorod 1896 oder Russlands Aufbruch ins 20. Jahrhundert”, in Lettre International, Vol. 94 (fall 2011).

Francis W. Wcislo, Tales of Imperial Russia, The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849–1915, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 314 pages