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The Importance of St. Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson was a key friend and colleague in the life of Grand Duke Michael who from being teenage pals, sharing college and army training, to his gruesome assassination alongside Michael during the summer of 1918 in the Siberian city of Perm.

Nicholas was born in Russia in 1878, the brother of two elder sisters, Elisabeth, and Anna. He was the son of Captain Nicholas A. Johnson, an English guard at the Imperial Court, and Louise (von) Kreisler Johnson, a German music and singing teacher at Court. Widowed, she later married a Russian doctor, moved to England and died in 1924.

Given the name Brian at birth, he took his father’s name Nicholas at his baptism. A shared love of music with the Anglophile Grand Duke Michael, the younger brother of Tsar Nicholas, who like Nicholas was also a graduate of the Mikhailovsky Artillery School, led to a deep friendship where he was nicknamed `Johnny`. Nicholas chose to keep his British nationality.

Described as being ‘round faced, shorter than Michael by around 250 mm, the pair were jovially known as Little and Large` Speaking three languages’ he was sociable, smiling, an accomplished pianist and accompanying Grand Duke, who played several instruments.

In late 1912 the Grand Duke Michael chose Nicholas as his private secretary.

Michael soon realised during those early years of their friendship that Johnson was a very wise counsellor and complemented his `gung ho` and very relaxed `floppy` (as he was nicknamed) spirit. Johnson was careful, thoughtful, and considered all options for and on behalf of Michael who soon came to rely on his wisdom and advice. From that point onwards, Michael was free from the turmoil of decision making by and large and, especially as the Romanov dynasty was under attack from several quarters. Johnson was able to steer him in a middle ground thus avoiding challenging conflict within the family and politics. Michael also delegated all administrative duties to Johnson who always acted in the best interest of his master.

Thus, Michaels character of being very likeable, affable and caring, flourished through avoidance of conflict under the background steerage of his close friend Nicholas Johnson.

However, Michael was impetuous and acted from the heart very readily. This case in point was his courtship and subsequent marriage to Natalie Wulfert who was morganatic twice divorced, with child. His older brother Tsar Nicholas II was disgusted to hear of Michaels courtship and soon arranged for both to be ostracised in court and society. Regardless, Michael`s love for Natalie was deepening even through this barrage of hate aimed at his escort to a point where he had decided to take a secret holiday in Vienna whilst dodging the Russian Secret Service (the Okhrana) who were keeping him under surveillance. There, in 1912 he married in secret. He informed his brother who was outraged and immediately exiled him and Natalia from Russia.

It is not clear if the counsel of Johnson was appointed in the decision to marry, but it seems likely. Johnson being in both their companies over several years would have seen the depth of love he shared with Natalia and no doubt was instrumental in arranging to deceive the Secret Service and arranging their marriage. He would often draft letters and documents for Michael and it would seem credible that his hand was on the announcement letter to Tsar Nicholas.

They soon settled in the UK in 1913 with his entourage, Johnson and his mother Louise. Johnson’s hand in this is noticeably clear as he made pre-inspections of various substantial properties and in choosing Knebworth House in Bedford, formulated an agreed lease and handled all the transactions. The following year he set up a lease for the family in Paddockhurst in Sussex, but this move never transpired as Michael and Johnson were called back to Russia at the outbreak of WWI. Michael was given command of the Savage Cossack Regiment and was acclaimed as a valuable and worthy leader with many successes on the German Eastern front.
In 1917, Nicholas abdicated in favour of Michael. Johnson’s hand was very evident in Michaels written reply. Basically, he was advising Michael that he should accept only on the condition that the government was in full approval and that this mandate was put to the Russian people for approval. This was an overly sensitive and intelligent response through Johnson’s counsel as its success depended on full support from then Russian populace. If that support were not garnered, then Michael would inevitably face the same difficulties as his brother Tsar Nicholas. However, Johnson’s advice became a self-fulling prophecy as within 12 hours the Russian Kerensky government had met and blocked the abdication terms, to which Michael and Johnson were no doubt relieved to hear, given the objections.

This is the letter written by Michael to his brother Nicholas, upon the advice and counsel of Nicholas Johnson.

Inspired, in common with the whole people, by the belief that the welfare of our country must be set above everything else, I have taken the firm decision to assume the supreme power only if and when our great people, having elected by universal suffrage a Constituent Assembly to determine the form of government and lay down the fundamental law of the new Russian State, invest me with such power.
Calling upon them the blessing of God, I therefore request all the citizens of the Russian Empire to submit to the Provisional Government, established and invested with full authority by the Duma, until such time as the Constituent Assembly, elected within the shortest possible time by universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage, shall manifest the will of the people by deciding upon the new form of government.

Russian and world leaders thought the document noble and patriotic, (thanks to the counsel of Johnson.)
Matters worsened for the pair, shortly after the imprisonment of Nicholas and his family at Tobolsk. Michael and Johnson were arrested at Gatchina outside St Petersburg in March 1918. and were put under house arrest in Petrograd. This state continued well into the following year…. on and off, as the government changed through revolution and bloodshed in the streets of Russia. Finally, Lenin who was becoming fearful that Michael was attracting attention from The Germans and the British in wanting him to become their puppet through the defeat of Lenin and the Bolshevik Government soon exiled the pair to the city of Perm in Siberia, well out of reach of the warring nations and internal politics. .

However, whilst under house arrest in Perm during the summer of 1918, it seemed that the White Army was making headway in gaining territory close to the City of Perm where they were under house arrest. It was evident a rescue could be mounted to free Michael which would be a disaster for Lenin as Michael was feted and adored by the people of Perm, and Russia who would have welcomed him to the Throne.

On the night of June 12th 1918. Michael and Johnson were arrested by Bolshevik thugs using forged papers signed by Lenin, then dragged from the Korolov Hotel, taken to a forest clearing outside the City and shot. As Nicholas lay dying, the wounded Michael went to his aid, begging the execution squad: ‘Let me say goodbye to my friend’. Moments later, he too was dead (allegedly), killed at point blank range in the head.
After the alleged assassination of Michael and Johnson, Andrei Marcov who fired the killing shots, together with the other 4 assassins, stripped the bodies naked and showed the cloths to the waiting local Cheka leaders as evidence of the murders. Marcov was interviewed by a state archivist in 1963, a year before his death, where he retold the story of, and leading up to, the crime scene. In that interview Marcov proudly showed a wristwatch which he had stolen from the body of Johnson, claiming it as a Heroes trophy, and for all those years had kept perfect time, never needing repair. The wristwatch was described in detail where the records are now kept in the national Archives.

It is widely believed that Lenin (although denied) arranged for the assassination of both Michael and Johnson.
However, an incontestable fact arises in that after several years of searching this century for their bodies, no trace has been found. Indeed, Michael was reported widely as being seen in several locations in Europe by witness as reported in leading newspapers.

The question arises then…. did Michael escape from the murder scene to become the spearhead for the White Royalist Army in their war against the Bolshevik Red Army. ?

The novel of the `Two lives of Grand Duke Michael` expresses a credible alternative where Michael was rescued barely alive after the assassination attempt and brought to the UK to live his second life in secrecy under the close supervision of MI6 and his handler, Olga Bystrovia. In the book, Johnson did not survive and was buried at a secret location some miles from the scene by Michaels rescuer, Sidney Reilly the British MI6 `Ace of Spies`.

Please be aware that this is a what if fiction and not based on any evidences other than hypothesis based on the non-discovery of Michaels body.

Following on into the novel …….the author inserts an interesting adventurous journey whilst they were under house arrest in Gatchina, the birthplace of Michael. It claims that there was a secret mission to extract Michael and Johnson from Russia to travel to the UK and back in a two-week period. The purpose was for the Allied Heads of State and WWI commanders to secure Michaels interests in spearheading the Allied plans for the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1918 at Archangel. Michael agreed, but upon his return to Russia the pair were arrested and sent to Perm in Siberia

During this fictional journey, you will read of the Author creating immense importance of Johnson aiding and guiding Michael through the avenues of political intrigue, to a point where Michael became the possible destiny of Russia through Johnsons’ intrepid style of negotiating and wording of treaties.

Today both have been exonerated from being Enemies of the State and have been rehabilitated in the minds and souls of Russians to a point where both were canonised as Saints in November 1981. Memorial plaques have been erected in Perm to recognise the value and love of Grand Duke Michael and Nicholas Johnson….. as seen from the hearts of the Russian people.

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