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    Witte, Stolypin, and Goremykin [1921]
translated by F.B. Czarnomski

Ferdinand Ossendowski

It may be interesting if I put down here a few of my own recollections of three of the most distinguished Prime Ministers of Russia: Count Sergius Witte, the creator of the 1905 Constitution and of the first revolution; Peter Stolypin, the author of the Bill intended to transform the [Russian] peasant into a small bourgeois, and the propagator of the civilized suppression of the revolutionary spirit in Russia; and Ivan Goremykin, the last Imperial Premier. The three personalities were powerful enough to mark a distinct epoch in the history of Russia.

Witte‘s main characteristic. . . and one which gave him a peculiar power, was his absolute immorality. To him there was only the aim, and all means to reach an end were equally good.

Witte, a former bookkeeper of the Southwestern Railway, who became a Minister of State, received the title of Count, and became almost an autocrat in government, was and exceedingly forecful, energetic, and wise man. The main characteristic of this statesman, and one which gave him a peculiar power, was his absolute immorality. To him there was only the aim, and all means to reach an end were equally good, if they were practical. An episode during the Russo-Japanese peace negotiations in Portsmouth [after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5] is very illuminating in this regard. The negotiations were dragging on, as the Japanese put forward very stiff claims, and the Russian delegation was totally confused and at a loss what to do. Witte himself was calm and even in high spirits.

One day there called on Witte the leading representative of the Russian press, Boris A. Suvorin, the son of the well-known editor of the most popular and influential of Petersburg dailies, the Novoie Vremia. He came to inquire whether Witte foresaw any developments at the Conference, as he wanted to go to New York to see a lawn tennis match.

“Yes, of course you should go,” said Witte with ill-humor. “We are moving in a vicious circle. We can’t go either forwards or backwards with those Japs. Go and enjoy hourself, but before you go send a cable to your father saying, ‘Witte will not sign the Peace Treaty.’ Of course you will send it in your code.”

Assured, and in the best of spirits, Suvorin sent the cable off and went to New York. He told the sequel afterwards.

“Just imagine, I arrived in New York, and already on the station I heard the newspaper boys shouting: ‘Peace between Russia and Japan. The triumph of Witte! The Japs have yielded!’ What could I do? I got hold of a batch of papers and returned to Portsmouth by the first train. I set upon Witte at once.

“Excellency! What have you done? You have put Novoie Vremia in a terrible position. It’s a scandal! We shall be the laughing stock of the whole press. I am done as a correspondent! What a debacle! What a debacle!”

Witte smiled, as if nothing had happened, asked me to sit down, and said in his rather hoarse and halting voice: “It is true that Novoie Vremia is compromised. It is true that for a month you will be a laughing stock of the world. And it is also true that your reputation as a special correspondent has gone to the dogs. But it is not true what you say of the debacle. For you must know how it all really happened. You see, I knew the Japs would intercept your code. As soon as you sent to your editor in Petersburg the cable saying that I would not sign the Peace Treaty, the Japs read the cable and were scared. If the correspondent of the most influential paper cables it so positively to his editor, who is his father as well; if that correspondent goes off to New York to play tennis, they thought then no change of our position could be expected. The Japs were right in their deductions and they yielded.”

Thus Witte, in order to achieve a higher aim, sacrificed the career of a good and devoted friend. Such methods were quite common with him, and the Ministers and undersecretaries in his Cabinet often suffered through it.

When Witte came to the conclusion that the mood of the great masses of town population after the Russo-Japanese war threatened revolution, which was likely to infect the army, he convinced the Emperor of the necessity of convoking Parliament and of proclaiming a new Constitution. Soon he witnessed the increase of reaction, and resented the underhand struggle in which the Court camarilla and the landed gentry engaged against him.

The position of the omnipotent Minister was shaken. It was necessary to prop it up in order to save the situation. Witte resolved to organize a national procession to the Imperial Palace. Who was to lead it? The revolutionary leaders could be of no use, it was necessary to have a reliable man. He was found in the pope Gapon who was very popular among the laboring classes. He held the multitudes of workmen, students, and intelligentsia in front of the Winter Palace. At the head of the procession went women and old men carrying portraits of the Tsar and the Tsaritsa, crosses, and holy icons.

We know how the Imperial Guards, let loose by the reactionaries, massacred and dispersed the crowd. In the evening of the same day the streets of the city were bristling with barricades, and the flame of revolution blazed forth from the western front to the shores of the Pacific and to the Indian border. A revolution of the workmen and the intelligentsia, which was drowned in blood by the Generals Trepov, Dumbadse, Dubasov, Meller-Zakomelski, Rennenkampf, Rinn, and others.

Witte’s hand was active in the march of the revolution. That hand was the pope Gapon, who was unmasked as an agent of the political police.

Witte attempted at first to work upon the sentiments of the Tsar through a peaceful procession, through the religious fervor of the people, but failed. The guards fired at the defenceless crowds, at the holy icons, even at the Emperor’s portraits.

Then Witte played his last card. He threatened the throne with revolution, hoping through fear to compel the Tsar and his advisers to admit the realization of the new Constitution, which had already been proclaimed in the name of the Emperor. But the reactionaries, mostly German generals at the head of faithful regiments, strangled the hydra.

Witte fell, and retired from active politics for good. But the shadow that still held the power of his ruin in its hands remained. It was Gapon, the history of whose assassination in Finand remains a mystery. The executioners were one of the Social Revolutionary leaders the engineer Ruthenberg, and an agent of the secret police Okhrana who, during that stormy period, was close to Witte’s person. According to this agent, Witte knew of the planned assassination of Gapon, but did nothing to prevent it, although at that time he still had great influence and could have easily done so.

Witte’s enemies were aware of his part in Gapon‘s murder and exploited it to arouse the vengeance of the agents of the Okhrana against the dismissed Minister, and endeavored to take revenge for the Constitution of October 17 and the revolution of 1905.

An “infernal machine” was thrown into his motorcar while he, as Member of the Council of State, drove to the Mariiskii Palace, but Witte escaped unhurt. The attempt was repeated by sinking a similar contrivance into the chimney over the Premier’s cabinet. It was to explode when the stove was lighted. But accidentally a sweep, who happened to clean the chimney early in the morning, discovered the bomb, and the Count escaped again.

He summoned immediately his devoted agent of the political police and instructed him to make inquiries. He learned that the executors were two agents of the Okhrana, and that the plan had been made by the Chief of Gendarmerie, General Kurlov, and approved by the new Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin.

Witte understood that he would be utterly lost if he aspired to the high office and taking part in the active policy of the Government. Through secret channels he informed the Tsar that he had given up his political career, and intended to devote himself entirely to the work of the Council of State, which was the Upper Chamber of the Russian Parliament.

He was then left in peace and his life was spared.

Still, Witte was able from time to time to vex his enemy and successor in the ministerial chair. Once I witnessed a very fascinating conversation between the late and the actual Prime Minister. The meeting took place in the lobby of the Council of State.

“Your Excellency!” Witte opened the conversation. “Can you tell me when the police inquiries into the double attempt with the infernal machine against my person will be concluded?”

Stolypin looked at Witte suspiciously and answered:

“You know, Count, that the inquiries are being carried on. On their conclusion the results will be communicated to the Prosecutor, who will notify you immediately.”

“I think,” continued Witte, “that the case is rather a mystery, and should be interesting enough for the Government to hurry up with its clarification.”

Stolypin, touched to the quick, exclaimed excitedly:

“Do you think, Count, I am an imbecile or a criminal?”

“Allow me, Your Excellency, not to answer this question of yours,” replied Witte emphatically with a mocking smile.

And turning his back on the Prime Minister, he left him pale with rage.

Witte hated Tsar Nicholas II. I was with Witte at the moment when the Tsar called him on the phone, intending to send him to Rome at the beginning of the [First] World War, in order to bring in Italy on the side of the Allies. This meant a diplomatic battle royal with the “old fox” Prince Bülow, the Kaiser’s envoy.

“I thank your Imperial Majesty for the honor. I shall be glad to undertake the mission if, at my age, I have enough strength to carry it through,” said Witte with joy.

He listened while the Tsar spoke again. Then he replied once more.

“I beg to thank Your Majesty humbly, but I am obliged to make one condition. In my actions I want to be guided by your Majesty’s instructions alone, and I want to be entirely independent of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister.”

In the interval Witte listened attentively, while his hand, holding the receiver, was visibly trembling.

“Yes, such is my unbending determination, Sire! The Emperor, on whose behalf I spoke at Portsmouth and where I obtained good results, could persuade himself that the happiness of the Fatherland is my first care. Since my dismissal, your Majesty, my views in this matter have not changed.”

A long silence followed, during which I could hear the whistling rattle of the membrane in the microphone which repeated the Tsar’s words.

“I am very sorry, but I cannot withdraw this condition. I am your Majesty’s humble servant!”

The conversation was finished. Witte put the receiver down and paced his study nervously. At last he halted in front of the bronze statue of Alexander III, whom he adored, embraced the Tsar’s knees, and exclaimed with a voice hoarse and strangled with emotion:

“Thou, o wise Emperor, seest my pain and his crime. Thou instructest!”

Witte did not go to Rome, and the Russian envoy Giers settled the matter single-handed; true, he had an easy task, as the excellent and energetic action of British and French diplomacy frustrated all the plans and efforts Prince Bülow undertook in Rome.

On hearing of the declaration of war against Germany, Count Witte became pale like death, crossed himself with his usual wide gesture, reflected for a long time, gazing at the statue of Alexander III and the portrait of William II bearing the Kasiser’s own dedication. After a long silence Witte said:

“Those two always dreamed of war. The Tsar wanted it to come in fifty years‘ time, the Kaiser wanted it at once. The Tsar knew that the people are bereft of patriotism, intelligence, nerves; that the Treasury is empty; that there are no resources in the stores! The Tsar knew that the revolutionary spirit penetrated deeply the popular masses. Therefore he became the ‘apostle of peace’ in Europe and tried to prevent war. William knew it too and was confident of victory. The Tsar and myself, we both thwarted his plans. Now all is lost. The Japanese war taught Russia nothing, it has made her even more reckless and hysterical. Remember, this war will ruin Russia; we shall lose the war and Europe will be lost in revolution. Under its debris the dynasty will perish! I am sorry for Nicholas II, for he is the son of the greatest of Emperors. I shall not live to see this disgrace and disaster. . . which will shake the foundation of other States.”

Witte was right. Early in February 1915 he died suddenly. Rumor has it he was poisoned. This is not true. He caught a severe cold during his long speech on the financial and industrial policy of Russia at the congress of Russian industrialists. The speech led to the resignation of the Minister of Trade and Industry, Itmashev, and of a number of responsible officials in that Ministry. On the eve of Witte’s death I brought him a memorandum on the intended monopolization of manganese ores; Witte studied the document carefully, made some remarks and requested me to have it printed.

Next morning, on opening my paper, I read the notice of his death.

He was a real, ruthlessly immoral, forceful, and wise man. He seemed to be living exclusively for politics, indifferent to the common aspects of everyday life. But in truth, this giant of Russian policy had one soft spot. He was madly in love with his wife, whom he married after having helped her to get a divorce from her first husband.

Their married life passed in deep love. When the Countess travelled and stayed in her villa at Biarritz, leaving Witte behind at home in the Kamenno Ostrovskii Prospekt until the end of the Parliamentary session, he invariably fell ill. He suffered much from heart attacks, strong nervous excitement, and arthritis. Then he would send for his old friend, the Polish physician Wolański, and spend with him the long evenings in endless talk that was the best medicine for his illness. For what he really suffered from was his heart’s longing, bordering on melancholy. He died in the arms of the wife he worshipped. Before death he handed to her his famous Memoirs that were several times the object of thievish attempts, since they contained severe and sweeping statements on the reputations of statesmen who bulked large upon the political stage of Imperial Russia.

* * *

Peter Stolypin was a provincial Governor on the Volga before he became Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior. He rose to the very top of bureaucratic career thanks to his energy, prudence, and profound knowledge of the manifold tendencies pervading the Russian society and nation. He was one of the first Russians who had the courage to foretell openly that Russia was sinking fast into the abyss of anarchy and revolution, and forecast with great precision-as the history of the Empire proved-the immediate fate of his country.

Stolypin maintained that the revolution would be launched by the working masses, the bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia, and that it would quickly spread to the peasants and the army. In the whirl of struggles would perish the dynasty, the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and the educated classes.

Stolypin did not undertake to arrest the flight of revolutionary thought that continued with growing speed, hastening through the “slow and treacherous time toward the reign of Count Witte,” the author of the 1905 revolution. According to Stolypin that revolution was the ballon d’essaie, and the school of a speedy and more powerful upheaval.

But Stolypin intended to weaken its progress through an iron regime in internal politics, hoping to create within a few years an immense anti-revolutionary army, composed of peasants, who were to be transformed into a new middle class. In conjunction with the Minister of Agriculture, A.W. Krivoshein, Stolypin convoked a meeting of the landed gentry and announced that the Government was obliged to purchase from them a considerable portion of their etstates, in order to resell it on easy terms to the peasants for the purpose of raising them to the status of small landowners. The Government was to assist the latter to employ modern methods of agriculture. The small landowner-peasant was to be in turn the mainstay of the Government and the foe of anarchistic revolution.

The Emperor Nicholas II approved of this new scheme, but the great landowners were terrified at the prospect of being forced to sell their land. Stolypin was assailed from two sides. The gentry launched in their press organs a violent attack upon the Prime Minister, calling him the “slayer of the gentry” and inciting against him the court camarilla. On the other hand the revolutionaries, both at home and abroad, conducted an agitation against Stolypin, rightly apprehensive that the abolition of the communal peasant proprietorship and the creation of a peasant-bourgeois would postpone revolution in Russia for many years to come.

Stolypin did his best to impress the landed gentry with the imperative necessity of granting concessions. To his represenations of the horrors of the future revolution, the landowners had but one reply: “Do not try to frighten us! You have the Cossacks, the gendarmes, and the army to suppress any revolution!”

The gentry tried to dissuade the Tsar from the bold schemes of the Premier and, having failed, they intensified their attacks in the press, at the same time operating with the usual Russian methods of provocation, denunciation, and conspiracy. The willing executors of the plotters’ designs were found in two men standing nearest to Stolypin as Minister of the Interior; they were the Chief of the Gendarmes, General Kurlov, and the Director of the Department of Police, Beletskii. These two dignitaries set to work through the agents of the secret police who, at the same time, were members of the revolutionary party. The fighting terrorist-revolutionary organizations received through mysterious channels considerable sums from the landed gentry for the purpose of making an attempt on Stolypin, and were furnished with a complete plan for his assassination. Even the most cautious and suspicious revolutionary leaders who, however, ignored the fact that the terrorist “comrades” who put the scheme forward were agents of the police, approved of the scheme as possible of execution.

The attempt was put into execution in Stolypin’s villa situated in the most fashionable quarter of Petersburg. A young and enthusiastic revolutionary, slightly cracked, and entirely under the influence of one of his comrades, exploded a powerful bomb in front of Stolypin’s study. The villa was considerably damaged, the Premier’s son was wounded, and a large number of officials, gendarmes, and private persons killed. The assassin himself perished in the explosion, but Stolypin escaped unhurt, having lef the villa a few moments before the explosion. But the police failed to discover either the initiators or the accomplices of the attempt.

Then the Tsar, fearing a second attempt, counselled Stolypin to leave the capital for a time. The latter, who had already received private warning, agreed, and under the pretext of studying the conditions of colonization of Asiatic Russia, went to Siberia in company with the Minister Krivoshein. During the journey two attempts to derail the train were made by revolutionary railwaymen.

On his return from Siberia he had another conversation with the Emperor to whom he put the direct question whether he intended to fight the approaching revolution by the only practical means of issuing a new law of peasant ownership. Failing such a measure Stolyping threatened to resign. The Tsar promised to support the project, and to exact from the landed gentry submission to the new law.

When the landowners learned of the impending measure, they pressed General Kurlov to remove Stolypin forever. A new plot was being hatched in the bureau of the secret police when unexpectedly Stolypin lefty for Kiev to take part in some celebration. General Kurlov seized the occasion to issue the order for the execution of the Prime Minister. It was carried out by an agent of the secret police, who was also a member of the Social Revolutionary party. Stolypin was hit by several revolver bullets on entering the Kiev theater and expired soon after. The assassin was hanged amidst rather mysterious circumstances, and all subsequent descriptions of the case are either inventions or vague rumors on a forbidden subject.

How was it possible for the murderer to enter the theater for which all tickets were distributed individually to officials and to the best known people of Kiev, and of which all entrances were guarded by gendarmes, the metropolital and secret police, and the military?

Behind the murder were the hands of Kurlov and Beletskii; behind them were arrayed the aristocratic latifundists and the old landed gentry.

* * *

The last prerevolutionary Prime Minister of Russia was old Ivan L. Goremykin, a rich, lazy, and cynical snob.

The official career of this dignitary ran its normal course. He was several times Minister of the Interior, but was unfortunate enough to be disturbed by the first ripples of the revolutionary waves. The governors of various provinces inundated the Minister with their wires but the man, lazy by nature, never read those “stupid” telegrams, as he called them, stowing them away in the drawers of his desk. Someone informed Emperor Alexander III of it, and he sent his aide-de-camp to inquire. The latter found whole heaps of unopened telegrams, many of which were rather disquieting and even alarming.

Goremykin was obliged to resign.

When, shortly before the revolution of 1917, Goremykin was, through the influence of Rasputin and the Empress, appointed Prime Minister, the Dowager Empress exclaimed:

“This old idiot again!”

But he was no idiot. He knew every inch of Russia, and the only escape from revolution he saw in the conclusion of a peace with Germany. He threw all his influence in the direction of such a policy.

During the rule of Kerenskii Goremykin was arrested, but released soon afterwards and allowed to leave Petersburg. I met the ex-Premier a few weeks before his death.

In the middle of September 1917 I went for my holidays to the “Caucasian Riviera”-Sochi on the Black Sea. Everywhere one could already perceive the approach of Bolshevism and the moroseness of the masses. The passenger boats along the Caucasian shore ceased to ply, and I was obliged to hire a motorboat in order to get from Tuapse to Sochi. I was just engaged in placing my luggage in the boat when a distinguished old lady approached me and requested permission to go by our boat to Sochi, accompanied by her husband and maid.

Mutual introductions followed, and I learned it was Madame Goremykin. A few minutes afterwards the maid brought the ex-Premier. The old man was almost completely paralyzed, but still retained a remarkable clearness of mind.

We chatted on recent events when I mentioned the Germans who had demoralized the Russian army, reducing it to a maddened mob of robbers. Goremykin defended the Germans and accused the Duma and the Entente diplomacy of authoring the revolution.

On our arrival at Sochi, the Goremykins stayed in a “pension” while I went to the hotel Riviera. A few days afterwards a gang of armed and masked men burst into the “pension” and stole all of Madame Goremykin’s jewelry, money, and documents.

On reflection, after this event, I was astonished that such notorious and hated epople as the Goremykins should have chosen Sochi as their residence, where conditions were particularly favorable for an attack.

Soon after my departure from Sochi, about the middle of October, Goremykin moved with his wife into a villa belonging to his married daughter. Here he was assaulted at night by a gang of Bolshevik sailors who murdered with appalling cruelty the ex-Premier, Madame Goremykin, and their son-in-law, while wounding seriously their daughter who was saved afterwards.

Such was the end of the First Imperial Premier and leader of reaction.

Fedinand Ossendowski, aka Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski (1876-1945), Polish and English author, soldier, traveler, and diplomat, the author of Beasts, Men, and Gods [1921], a bestseller that is now part of the Gutenberg Project. Sergei Witte (1849-1915), chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers under Tsar Nicholas II. Petr Stolypin (1862-1911), chairman of the Council of Ministers under Tsar Nicholas II. Both were influential on and beneficial for Russia, but repressive and destructive for the non-Russian population of the empire. Ossendowski’s rendition of Stolypin’s murder differs from the accepted version. Ivan Goremykin (1839-1917), an ineffectve politician known for his chauvinistic views. This chapter (XXII) is excerpted from Ossendowski’s The Shadow of the Gloomy East [1921], translated by F. B. Czarnomski (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1925). We updated the orthography but not the translation. All editorial additions are in square brackets.

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