Count Sergei Iulievich Witte (1849-1915) was a highly influential Russian statesman, who served under Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. He was born in Tiflis to a father from a noble family of Baltic German extraction from the Pskov Region and a mother, Catherine Fadeyev, descended from Dolgoruki princes.
After graduating from Novorossiysk University in Odessa in 1870, Witte pursued a career in the private rail industry and spent most of the following two decades in the administration and management of rail lines, especially in Ukraine. By the 1880s, Witte had established such a strong professional reputation that he was he was appointed to head the South Western Railway System. In 1888, he was involved with the investigation into the train derailment at Borki, which Alexander III and the Imperial family survived despite many fatalities. At the conclusion of the investigation, Alexander III appointed Witte as Director of State Railways within the Finance Ministry, where he served from 1889 to 1891. During his tenure, he oversaw an ambitious program of railway expansion, which included the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In 1892, Witte was appointed as acting Minister of Ways and Communications, a position that gave him control of railways throughout the country and the authority to reform tariffs. Later that same year, he was appointed as Minister of Finance, an office in which he was responsible for numerous important accomplishments. Witte expanded the Trans-Siberian Railway; he established a state monopoly on alcohol, which became an important source of revenue for the government; he undertook a sweeping currency reform to place the rouble on the gold standard, which resulted in increased investment and an influx of foreign capital; and he called for reform of the peasant community and rural industry. In 1903, Nicholas II transferred Witte to the position of Chairman of the Committee of Ministers.
In 1905, Nicholas II called on Witte to negotiate an end to the ill-fated Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). He was sent with Baron Roman Rosen (1847-1921) to peace talks hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) in the United States. The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on 5 September 1905, formally ended the war, and Witte's skillful
negotiation resulted in a favourable settlement for Russia. His success was lauded widely in Russia, and for his efforts he was made a Count.
Following the successful negotiation of the treaty, Witte once again assumed a decision-making role in government, in order to address the civil unrest following the war and the Bloody Sunday riots of 1905. For some time, Witte had urged Nicholas II that political reforms were necessary. Under his influence, the Emperor issued the October Manifesto (1905), which granted civil liberties and established a national legislature. The Committee of Ministers was replaced by a Council of Ministers, with Witte as its Chairman, and functioned as a policy making cabinet with the Chairman acting as Prime Minister of the government. By August of 1906, Witte was forced to resign as Chairman of the Council, but he continued in Russian politics as a member of the State Council, never again to serve in an administrative role in the government. Witte remained active into the First World War, despite his waning health, and urged Russia not to enter the conflict. He died shortly thereafter in 1915 at the age of 64.
The present bronze, cast in 1901, coincides with Sergei Witte's tenure as Minister of Finance. Casts of this model are exceedingly rare and, consequently, seldom appear on the market. One cast is held in the collection of the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg and other known casts were exhibited at the Mir Iskusstva exhibition in St Petersburg in 1902, the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1904, and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1912. The present bronze is thought to have been one of those casts exhibited by the artist. What makes the work even more remarkable is that it has remained in the Troubetzkoy family and has never appeared on the market. According to the family, the work was inherited from Paul Troubetzkoy by his brother and heir, Luigi (1867-1959). It was subsequently acquired by Princess Alexandra Troubetzkoy (1910-1994), grand-niece of the artist, and has descended in the family to the present owner.