Donald Rayfield

Eminent Tsarist Statesman

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

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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.)

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