Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.4 (2004) 749-758
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Sergei Witte and His Times
A Historiographical Note
Nashville, TN 37325 USA
The Emperor Alexander III Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, again bearing the name originally bestowed on it by sovereign decree, still exhibits Il´ia Repin's enormous mural of the Imperial State Council, which he painted in 1903. The canvas, occupying an entire wall of one room, displays a lost world of imperial power, legitimacy, even ascendancy. There, prominently at its center, is the noticeably young emperor Nicholas II and his even younger brother, Mikhail, flanked by older, gray-bearded grand dukes, royal brothers of their deceased father, Alexander III. Resplendent in the medals and flashes of color that communicated hierarchies of status and influence, the great councilors of the Russian empire sit around the circular tables of the assembly. Most of them look away, distracted by some activity, artifacts frozen in time. A proper and serious emperor, however, gazes directly into the eyes of the viewer, as does that infamous, wizened, near-translucent Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev. Towering in the foreground of the canvas, staring, almost glaring, from it is Sergei Iul´evich Witte, in the gold-braided frock coat of His Imperial Majesty's state secretary. The same room also displays many of the individual studies Repin painted before completing the mural. Included [End Page 749] is Witte's, a still life for which, dressed in a white summer suit and tie, he sat desultorily in 1903, around the time of his dismissal from the Ministry of Finance. Many readers undoubtedly have viewed this intriguing room. New to it recently is a white marble bust of Witte, sculpted in 1907, a slightly discordant note in a room otherwise devoted to one of Repin's most renowned works. These days, though, Sergei Witte apparently has been very much on the minds of that part of the Russian cultural establishment that still attends to the historical, judging at least by the stream of Witte publications, a veritable Witte-nalia, that has transpired in the last decade. Denis Nikolaevich Shilov's 2001 Gosudarstvennye deiateli rossiiskoi imperii: Glavy vysshykh i tsentral´nykh uchrezhdenii, 1802-1917. Biobibliograficheskii spravochnik (Statesmen of the Russian Empire: Heads of the Supreme and Central Institutions, 1802-1917. A Bio-Bibliographical Reference Work), lists some 130 entries for Russian-language articles and books written on Witte since 1991. Their topics reflect a series of interests, strikingly in parallel with the politics and political culture of post-Soviet Russia: evolutionary alternatives in late imperial Russia; precommunist economic models; great-power (derzhavnyi) foreign policy; and a scholarly interest in personality and the individual.1
Of course, this historiographical interest is also of longer duration, originating in part with Witte himself. In his last years, the cashiered minister turned his considerable intellectual powers to his memoirs, which in part were a grand project of historical self-justification and in part, especially as they grew in length, a narrative of his memories. In the summer of 1907, a year after his fall from power, while roaming Europe in a self-imposed political martyrdom, Witte began scribbling what he entitled "Zapiski grafa Vitte (vospominaniia—sostavlennye naskoro, ne imeia pod rukami nikakogo materiala)" (Notes of Count Witte [memoirs written hastily and without documents at hand...