sergei witte

In 1903, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Sergei Iulevich Witte, remarked to Theodor Herzl that Jews comprised nearly half of the membership of revolutionary parties, even though they were only six million people in a nation of 136 million. If Witte exaggerated, he did so only slightly.

From 1901 to 1903, Jews composed 29.1 percent (2,269 individuals) of those arrested for political crimes. From March 1903 to November 1904 more than half of those investigated for political activity were Jews (53 percent). This fact can most easily be explained as a reaction to the Kishinev and Homel pogroms. In 1905, Jews made up 34 percent of all political prisoners; of those exiled to Siberia, 37 percent were Jews. […] The number of Jews who were Social Democrats exceeded the number of Russians (according to police data) in both the southwestern (49.4 percent to 41.8 percent) and southern territories (51.3 percent to 44.2 percent). They also comprised the lion’s share of those under investigation in Odessa (75.1 percent Jews versus 18.7 percent Russians). […] Without a doubt, the Bund, the largest revolutionary party in Russia, contained the largest numbers of Jews involved in criminal political activity. In the summer of 1904, the Bund could claim 23,000 members; in 1905–7, 34,000. […] For comparison’s sake, in the beginning of 1905, the entire Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP) consisted of approximately 8,400 members. There was also significant Jewish representation in the Russian revolutionary parties and organizations. During the time of the 1905 revolution, approximately 15 percent of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (PSR) was Jewish, and there were a number of “maximalist and anarchist terrorist groups that were almost entirely Jewish.” […] At the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party in London in 1907, nearly a third of the delegates were Jewish.

At the same time, however, it must be noted that regardless of the extent of Jewish participation in Russian or Jewish revolutionary parties, Jewish revolutionaries comprised a minute portion of the general Russian population, as well as an extremely small percentage of Russian Jewry. In the perception of the typical Russian resident—from the lumpenproletariat to the intelligentsia—the role of Jews in revolutionary activity was greater than it actually was. A typical example can be found in a joke from the satirical liberal journal Vampir from the 1905–7 revolutionary period. Though of limited wit, it is nevertheless telling. It reads, “Warsaw. Eleven anarchists were shot in the fortress prison. Of these, 15 were Jews.”

Oleg Budnitskii, Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920

Vodka Permanently Banned in Russia

Count Sergei Witte (1849-1915), father of the Russian state alcohol monopoly (and much of the rest of Russia’s economic structure, including its gold standard).  He had been opposed to the outbreak of the war, but his poor health had sidelined him by 1914.

October 21, Petrograd [St. Petersburg]–When general mobilization was announced on July 30/31, the sale of vodka was also suspended throughout Russia.  The state had had a complete monopoly on vodka in Russia for nearly twenty years, and thus was able to enact the prohibition swiftly.  The ban was initially supposed to be a temporary measure, but was repeatedly extended as the war continued and as it seemed to be having a positive effect on productivity and law and order.

On October 21, the Czar announced that that the halt of vodka production and sales in Russia would be permanent, lasting even beyond the end of the war.  At the same time, a ban on the sale other hard liquors, and even beer and wine, went into place, except along with meals in private restaurants, though local municipalities would have the authority to ban such sales within their jurisdictions.

David Lloyd George (late British PM) would hail the Russian prohibition as the “single greatest act of national heroism” during the war.  Temperance activists abroad (especially in the United States) would cite the Russian action as a shining example of the success of prohibition, but as time went on, the Russian prohibition (like the later American one) would run into problems.  Vodka and other hard alcohols would be produced by local bootleggers, and sale of alcohol would continue in private clubs.  The government also lost a major source of revenue; alcohol sales (mostly from the state vodka monopoly) had formed nearly a third of Russia’s receipts before the war.

The ban would outlast the czar who issued it; it was kept in place through two revolutions, and was only repealed by the Soviets in 1925.


October 17th 1905: October Manifesto issued

On this day in 1905 Russian Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto. The manifesto was mainly the brainchild of Count Sergei Witte as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905. The ‘revolution’ was a period of mass unrest against the government and due to general frustration with working conditions and poverty. The tsar’s manifesto promised civil liberties and an elected Duma (parliament). However, the provisions were not enough for many and civil liberties were still limited. This contributed to the success of the 1917 Communist Revolution.

Empress Maria Fyodorovna of Russia

[In the first years of the reign of Nicholas II] the final say rested with his mother. She increasingly interfered in political matters, sometimes annoying Nicholas´s ministers who considered her influence on the Tsar´s decisions incorrect and harmful. Maria Fiodorovna did her best to support her son - she thought herself more experienced and having better knowledge of people than her Nicky. She spent much time in his family, adored granddaughters and constantly demonstrated to her son her approval and was proud when he made successful acts. In 1899 Maria Fiodorovna wrote to her father to Copenhagen: “Nicky made a fine speech … he spoke easily and quietly, not choosing words and I did not feel any fear”. She retained this fear for Nicky through the years, up to her death … And probably her mistake was that she could not overcome her fear as she failed to put firmness and self-assurance into his soul. It must be noted that Alix could neither do that persuading her husband to be more firm in his decisions, to show his willpower. However, one cannot deceive one´s nature - Nicholas was an honest and sincere man, but that was so little for a statesman called to control the fate of the huge Empire. One thing remained for them - to be near Nicky supporting and directing him … 

Sergei Witte, who was a minister for many years under Alexander III, once had a conversation with the Dowager Empress: “You want to say that the Sovereign has no character of an Emperor?” - “This is true,” answered Maria Fiodorovna, “but in an emergency he is to be replaced by Misha, and the latter has even less willpower and character.”

The Russian Empresses: Maria Fiodorovna, 2006

The Causes of the 1905 Revolution

(Scene from Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’)

The social tensions in Russia came to a head in 1905 as revolution engulfed Russia and threatened the Romanov monarchy. Although the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, the tsar was forced to grant significant concessions (in the form of a representative parliament) and it took a year for the tsarist government to restore social order in the urban centres.

The 1905 revolution was triggered by the events of Bloody Sunday - January 8, 1905. Thousands of protesters marched under Father Gapon to petition the tsar for better working conditions and increased political rights. As the protesters approached the Winter Palace, Cossack troops became intimidated and fired at the unarmed protesters, killing hundreds of them. 

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Economic Reforms in Late 19th Century Russia

(Count Sergei Yulevich Witte)

The reign of Tsar Alexander III (1881-1894) has traditionally been characterised as a period of reaction and conservatism. Though this is generally true on the political front, it should be recognised that Alexander III encouraged economic reforms in order to build up Russian economic power. The policies of Finance Minister Sergei Witte (1892-1903) are said to have resulted in a period of unprecedented economic growth for Russia driven by foreign investment. However, despite what appear to be strong economic performance indicators, it is also necessary to examine the impact of the economic reforms on Russian politics, and therefore Russian society as a whole.

In 1881 Alexander III appointed Nikolai Bunge to head the Ministry of Finance. In his time in office (1881-1886), Bunge pursued policies which may be retrospectively described as Keynesian in order to modernise the Russian economy. Attempts were made to lighten the burden of tax on the peasantry, and in 1883 the Peasant Land Bank was created in order to provide loans to the peasantry to encourage economic development.

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