Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849–1915 by Francis W Wcislo - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Eminent Tsarist Statesman

Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849–1915


Oxford University Press 314pp £35 order from our bookshop

Many Russian émigrés – not least Nabokov, in his memoirs – and even some non-Russian historians fancied that imperial Russia would come unscathed through war and revolution to develop into a prosperous and liberal monarchy. This fantasy was inspired by the ministers of genius who held office in the 1890s and 1900s – men like Piotr Stolypin and, above all, Sergei Witte. In their time they transformed Europeans’ view of Russia: thanks to Stolypin, Russian peasants sent butter in refrigerated wagons to London’s Home and Colonial shops; thanks to Sergei Witte, the Russian rouble was as acceptable as sterling or dollars in Italian hotels, and trains ran faster from Paris to St Petersburg than they do today. (My grandfather accordingly invested the family fortune in Russian railways, which is why his offspring have all had to work for a living.)

With such ministerial talent, especially when the Duma gave Russia some parliamentary discourse, and with press and legal systems comparable to the best in Europe, how could tsarist Russia fail? There were two opposing pressures. No minister could survive the Charybdis of the Imperial court. Tsar Nicolas II’s

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter