Tales of Imperial Russia
The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915
University Press 2011
When it comes to Russia’s great reformers of the nineteenth century, Count Sergei Witte looms large. As a minster to both Alexander III and Nicholas II, Witte presided over some of the most important economic and political developments in the Old Regime’s last quarter century. As Finance Minister he oversaw the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As a diplomat, he was Russia’s chief negotiator of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that ended his country’s disastrous war with Japan. As Prime Minister, Witte authored the October Manifesto which crowned a series of sweeping reforms of Russia’s political system with a parliament, the State Duma.
But as Frank Wcislo emphasizes in his biography, Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915 (Oxford University Press, 2011), Witte was also a great storyteller, as exemplified in his memoirs The Notes of Count Witte. Wcislo shows in this fascinating book how Witte’s stories reveal the times of the man as a man of the times. Witte was an archetypical New Russian torn by his affinity for the conservatism of the Russian elite and his recognition that those very values were fetters on his nation’s modernization. At the same time Witte’s stories reveal a man prone to masculine hero worship, gossip, vindictiveness, and embellishment of his own role in Russia’s high politics.