Sergei Witte served the tsarist government in several positions, including transport minister under Alexander III and chief minister under Nicholas II. He remained in the State Council after the 1905 Revolution but was effectively replaced by Pyotr Stolypin.
Witte completed his memoirs in 1912 and English translations were published in the West in 1920. In this extract, Witte recalls the state of the Russian nation in October 1905:
“I assumed the duty of ruling the Russian Empire in the capacity of President of the Committee of Ministers in October 1905.
At that time the country was in a state of complete and universal confusion. The Government was in a quandary, and when the revolution boiled up furiously from the depths, the authorities were completely paralysed. They either did nothing or pulled in opposite directions so that the existing regime and its noble standard bearer were almost completely swept out of existence. The rioting grew more fierce, not daily but hourly. The revolution came out openly on the streets and assumed a more and more threatening character. Its urge carried away all classes of the people.
A general feeling of profound discontent with the existing order was the most apparent symptom of the corruption with which the social and political life of Russia was infested. It was this feeling that united all the classes of the population. They all joined in the demand for radical political reforms, but the manner in which the different social groups visioned the longed-for changes varied with each class of people.
The upper classes, the nobility, were dissatisfied and impatient with the Government. They were not averse to the idea of limiting the Emperor’s autocratic powers, but with a view to benefiting their own class. Their dream was an aristocratic constitutional monarchy.
The merchants and captains of industry, the rich, looked forward to a constitutional monarchy of the bourgeois type and dreamed of the leadership of capital and of a mighty race of Russian Rothschilds.
The intelligentsia, i.e., members of various liberal professions, hoped for a constitutional monarchy, which was eventually to result in a bourgeois republic modelled upon the pattern of the French State.
The students, not only in the universities but in the advanced high school grades, recognised no law, except the word of those who preached the most extreme revolutionary and anarchistic theories.
Many of the officials in the various governmental bureaus were against the regime they served, for they were disgusted with the shameful system of corruption which had grown to such gigantic proportions during the reign of Nicholas II.
The zemstvo and municipal workers had long before declared that safety lay in the adoption of a constitution.
As for the workmen, they were concerned about filling their stomachs with more food than had been their want. For this reason, they revelled in all manner of socialistic schemes of state organisation. They fell completely under the sway of the revolutionists and rendered assistance without stint wherever there was need of physical force.
Finally, the majority of the Russian people, the peasantry, were anxious to increase their land holdings and to do away with the unrestrained arbitrary actions on the part of the higher landed class and of the police throughout the extent of its hierarchy, from the lowest gendarme to the provincial governor. The peasant’s dream was an autocratic Tsar, but a people’s Tsar, pledged to carry out the principle proclaimed in the reign of Emperor Alexander II – the emancipation of the peasants with land in violation of the sacredness of property rights…
The nobility was willing to share the public pie with the middle class – but neither of these classes had a sufficiently keen eye to notice the appearance on the historical stage of a powerful rival, who was numerically superior to both and possessed the advantage of having nothing to lose. No sooner did this hitherto unnoticed class, the proletariat, approach the pie than it began to roar like a beast which stops at nothing to devour its prey.”