Пермский государственный архив социально-политической истории

Основан в 1939 году
по постановлению бюро Пермского обкома ВКП(б)

The Personal Relics of Nicholas Johnson and Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich – and how they made their way to Prague

Vladimir Bystrov,

a grandnephew of the secretary of Grand Duke Michael

Alexandrovich N.N. Johnson, Prague, Czechia

This paper describes the sad period of life of Grand Duke‘s secretary Nicholas Johnson and his mother Mme Johnson-Missievitch since Michael Alexandrovich stay in England, and the continuing relationships between Mme Johnson, her daughter Ann and Grand Duke‘s wife Natalia Brasova in England and France after 1918.


The story of the life-to-the-end friendship of Grand Duke Michael and Nicolas Johnson became at the end of 1912, when – after many years of faith - ful service – Michael’s personal secretary, Anatoly Mordvinov, decided he could not cope with Grand Duke‘s unwelcome affair and subsequent marriage with Natalia Wulfert, and tendered his resignation. Grand Duke, who was ordered by his brother Tsar Nicholas to leave Russia, had spent these months mainly in France, alternating between Nice, Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. At some time during 1912 he decided to bring in an old school friend Nicholas Johnson and ask him to become his new private secretary. (Johnson‘s new role was officially confirmed by Tsar‘s office only several years later, in the early 1916, but even with this „delay“, his status of the personal secretary was de- clared retroactively as effective since July 1, 1913.)

Finding an appropriate place to move in to took some time; in the summer of 1913, Michael and Natasha entrusted Johnson to find somewhere for them to stay in England. The old 16th century aristocratic home Knebworth House located North from London, decorated in the Victorian style, proved the natural choice. It was Johnson who negotiated and signed a lease with the owner, Lord Lytton, son of a former viceroy of India. This lease is dated September 1, 1913. However, the archives at Knebworth House state that the Russian group did not move in before October. At this time, the grand duke wrote to Lord Lytton: “...all my business is conducted by captain Johnson. I personally don't interfere with it at all. So will you kindly communicate with him in regard to all business matters.

Michael Romanov spent three-thousand pounds sterling a year renting out Knebworth House for use by himself and his friends. Michael and Natasha, along with their faithful retinue, spent just under a year in England. Very few pictures or reports from this time are preserved in the archives (or they have yet to be uncovered). The grand duke couple repeatedly hosted intellectuals and artist making trips from Russia. Records to this effect include visits by members of the Russian ballet, or singers, who were happy to hold performances in the picturesque settings of the country house. Period photographs, for example, capture the sensational singer Fyodor Shalyapin or the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavinova.

Johnson‘s Mother Louisa also made a trip to England to see young son. As little Tata, daghter of Natalie from her first marriage, later recalled, “Madame Johnson was in the old days a very famous teacher of singing and taught all the Royal Families of Europe. Her room was cluttered up with coroneted photographs, and she had a tremendous correspondence, with all her old pupils. She had a very old and asthmatic peke, which looked very much like her. I liked her, she was always nice, and would always listen to anything one had to say.” Tata related to us the following story of Louisa’s trip to England: “...some fortune-teller had told her to beware of the sea, and she was very nervous of crossing the Channel. She arrived at Calais quite pale with fright and prepared to stay the night or many nights if the sea were at all rough; fortunately it was like the proverbial millpond, and she was got aboard groaning and making innumerable signs of the Cross. We arrived quite safe- ly to Dover, but she was so shaken by this experience that she vowed nothing would make her take this journey again and that she would die in England.” And as she said, so it was.


The rental agreement for Knebworth only extended to a single year. When the lease was due to expire, Michael decided to move somewhere larger. At which point the old aristocratic Paddockhurst estate in Sussex, south of London, was located. They were ready to move, albeit the German declaration of war against Russia in 1914 so shook up the existing order that the Tsar stated that he needed Michael back in Russia. He quickly issued a formal pardon for past misdeeds, and thus enabled his brother to return to his native land so as to take up his responsibilities in the Russian army. The departure from England was hasty and disorganised. Michael and Natasha only took the most crucial possessions with them to Russia; the rest, including a number of luxury automobiles and thoroughbred horses, were transported to Paddockhurst, where they planned to return after the conflict was over. They left behind Johnson’s mother, Louisa, in England, as well as the senior stableman (prior to the departure of the group, he managed to marry the nanny of Michael and Natasha’s son George in the Knebworth chapel. But the very next day, the former Miss Ratta, now Mrs Bennett had to travel with the others back to Russia).

While Michael focused on military operations, and Johnson took care of his affairs at Gatchina, in England Michael’s affairs were administered by Johnson’s mother Louisa, along with the remaining personnel at Paddockhurst. In one despatched telegraph, Sir Arthur Davidson, an equerry to King George V, described it thus: “In the summer of 1914, the Grand Duke Michael took Lord Cowdray's place Paddockhurst, Worth, Sussex, on a lease, but before he had entered into occupation, the War broke out and he went at once to Russia, leaving the care of the House, Park, Servants, together with his horses and personal effects in charge of Madame Johnson-Missievitsch, an old Russian Lady (speaking only French and Russian), who had come to England for the first time on a visit to her Son, who was Equerry and Private Secretary to the Grand Duke.”

Michael had Paddockhurst rented for three years, but the cost of this was far from cheap. Nor was it clear if and when Michael would be able to return to England. Which is why he offered the entire house and park for use to the British Ministry of War, including all horses and a brand new Opel automobile. In a letter from Marlborough House, Sir Arthur Davidson explains that he emphatically recommended rejecting this generous offer: “By the terms of the lease, the tenant was responsible for all damage, dilapidations, etc., and as the House – a huge one – was quite new, very ornate, and there were large gardens, a good deal to covert shooting, etc., I foresaw very heavy damages after any occupation by Troops, which it would have been manifestly highly incorrect to have called on the Grand Duke to pay. Only a portion of the stables and outhouses was therefore accepted. The Grand Duke gave up Paddockhurst last year, and has taken: Elly Grange, Frant, Sussex, where Madame Missievitsch, by his order, extends every kind of hospitality and welcome to the wounded soldiers of the two local Hospitals,” added Davidson in his report.

Less than a year later Mme Johnson decided to move all Grand Duke‘s property to another place once again. From Frant they changed residence to the next village only, Wadhurst, to a house called Snape. Louise rented this in the summer of 1917, after problems with paying rent at Ely Grange led the owner to seek recompense via diplomatic channels. Not wishing to risk the Duke’s entire household, Louisa instead relocated. The new home was just a few miles away, and Louisa was able to prepare everything in time for the arrival of Natasha and the children.

Despite the fact that the Soviet authorities found out about the murders of Michael and Johnson within two weeks of the event, they nonetheless decided to cover up the news. They then disseminated false information in the media, suggesting that the Grand Duke and his secretary had escaped and were hiding in an unknown location. It took several years before Natalia, who had returned to England in the interim, and Louisa, who was waiting there for her, definitive - ly gave up all hope of ever seeing the two men alive again. Later in her book, granddaughter of Natalie noted a moving account by her mother (little Tata at the time), about how both women managed to keep faith that somehow everything might still turn out different than it had in reality. “Every day, on rising in the morning, Natasha would say to Mme Johnson, 'I am sure we will have good news today' and she would produce a reason for her hopes: 'I saw two magpies flying together this morning,' or 'A black cat sat in the garden and stared at me for three minutes'.” According to Tata’s recollections, such trials often led the women to tears, and the weeping away of sorrows. Then they would have a glass of liqueur, to regain their strengths and prepare them for the arrival of good news, which, according to various signs, was not far off. “Sometimes Natasha would wake at night from her lighter sleep, and lie in bed weeping until dawn. For it was at these times that she would lose all hope of ever seeing Michael again. But come morning, she would manage to greet Mme Johnson with a smile and to whisper to her: 'I am sure it will be to-day...' and when evening came and there had been no news, she would say 'Well... there is always to-morrow' and smile cheerfully, while in her heart despair was growing.”

These ladies stayed in Wadhurst for almost two years, and asides from pondering the fate of the missing men, also cultivated social contacts. Pauline Gray recalled in her memories that Natasha headed off to London to visit her mother-in-law, the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna. The meeting did not go as badly as Natasha feared. Nonetheless, she could not shake the feeling that the Empress had not forgiven Natasha for marrying her son. “She told me that she would likely not have recognised me. For I had changed so much in the decade she had not seen me,” Natasha later wrote in a letter to a male friend, captain Litchfield-Speer. “I didn’t ask whether she meant for the better or for the worse. But then Madame Johnson, who came to visit everyone at Marlborough House the next day, said that the Empress had been talking about me very positively the entire time: ‘Quelle belle femme, comme elle est jolie, je n'en revien pas!’ she apparently said.”

The hoped-for news still failed to arrive, and instead bad news started coming out of Russia. Natasha understood that she would have to look after the children by herself. When the lease of Snape House expired, she moved to Percy Lodge manor in Richmond, Surrey. Louisa also left Wadhurst, and found residence in the relatively close town of Weybridge, where she passed away five years later.


Nicholas’ life was ended by the gunshots of murderous Bolsheviks, meaning that this branch of the St. Petersburg Johnsons ‘died by the sword’. But there were also two older sisters. While Anna was born in Warsaw in the spring of 1874, her younger sister Elisabeth was born eighteen months later, likely in St. Petersburg. Anna Johnson dedicated her life to music. She learned to play the violin, and, much like her mother, she also soon begun to teacher. Now essentially a music teacher, she spent much time travelling, living in London and other European cities for many years. Anna’s old passports, which were handed down through the family, are full of stamps from all corners of Europe. She met her future husband, Vladimir Nikolaevich Bystrov, some time at the end of the 19th century. He was a descendant of a famous line of Russian doctors and a nobleman by blood (gradually working his way up to becoming a Court Councillor). They had two children together, son Nikolai (father of Vladimir Bystrov, and the grandfather of the author of this text) and daughter Elena. All of these travelled with V. N. Bystrov, including during his years of service in Riga, where he was sent from 1906– 1911 to serve as an assistant prosecutor in the county court. He then returned from Riga to St. Petersburg, from where young Nikolai went on to study law, and his sister ended up working as a language teacher.

The outbreak of civil war meant it was no longer safe to continue living in their native Russia. Mother Anna left for England, where the old dame Louisa had lived for some time already. Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, father Vladimir died; and son Nikolai – a member of the Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel-led White Army – made it all the way to Constantinople, where their general dissolved the regiment. Homeless White Army veterans had no choice but to head out to new homes. Nikolai found his in Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia, where he completed his studies at the Russian law faculty in Prague. He married and began working as a librarian at the foreign ministry. Anna Johnson met son Nikolai, his wife, and their small son Vladimir, for the last time during the 1930s, when she undertook her final trip to Prague. On this occasion, Anna brought with her a number of family documents and artefacts, without which our quest to uncover our family’s history would have been considerably more difficult.

Meanwhile, daughter Elena permanently settled in France, where she later married an “esaul” of the Don Cossacks in exile Matvej Safonov – in civilian life an employee of automobile firm Renault. And they were later joined in France by the elderly and unwell mother Anna. At first they lived together in Boulogne-sur-Seine, and later in the emigrant community concentrated around the Russian House in Sainte- Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris.

In France, Anna also maintained contacts with an old friend of her mother, Natalia Brasova, who in 1927 had swapped an expensive life in London for the more favourable Paris. Their friendship was so solid that prior to her death, Natalia handed Anna a collection of artefacts from the personal appurtenances of Nicholas Johnson and Grand Duke Michael. Thanks to the longterm care of Elena, these made their way to Czechoslovakia, where the family continue to care for them to this day. (The other part of this collection is preserved by the Thai branch of the family in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.) Anna died in France in 1959, seven years after her friend Natalia.

The collection was then kept by Anna’s daughter Elena who lived in Paris. In her French apartment, Elena repeatedly hosted her Thai relatives – descendants of her auntie and Nicholas Johnson’s sister Elisabeth – during their studies in Europe. What’s more, within’ a short period of a democratic movement in the then communist Czechoslovakia in the late 60’s of the 20th century, she hosted few visits of her nephew (and father of the author of this paper) Vladimir Bystrov. Thanks to the long-term care of Anna’s daughter Elena, these made their way to Czechoslovakia, where the family continue to care for them to this day. (The other part of this collection is preserved by the Thai branch of the family in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.)