Paul Nicolay of Monrepos  
 A Man for Today

Paul Nicolay of Monrepos in Vyborg (1860-1919) was a reformer and a bridge builder whose quality of life transcended borders of class, race, geography and denomination. His forefathers belonged to the circles around the Czars in St Petersburg, but his deep social passion made him break with a privileged lifestyle to serve his fellow men.

Starting with active care for social outcasts he proceeded to pioneer work amongst prisoners in Russia, to the easternmost part of Siberia. Then, during two decades before World War I, he endeavoured to reach the fermenting Russian university world.

His hope and strategy was that a new thinking would take root in Russia through students on a large scale finding a new purpose for their life. He also became a leader in the World Student Christian Federation next to Dr John Mott, later Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Ancestors and Early Years

Nicolay spent his first nine years in Berne, Switzerland, where his father was a Russian diplomat. His first known ancestor, who came from Sweden, had moved to Lübeck around 1500.

Another family member went to Strassbourg, where Paul Nicolay’s great grandfather Ludwig Heinrich von Nicolay was born 1737.Whilst studying in Paris he had been introduced to the distinguished French encyclopedists. Ludwig was private secretary to the Russian ambassador in Vienna before moving in 1769 to the court in St Petersburg to become private tutor to the future Czar. Later he was appointed secretary to the Imperial Cabinet and head of the Russian Academy of Science. He was raised to nobility by the Czar. Having his residence in St Petersburg he acquired Monrepos as a summer home in 1788 from the governor, Prince Württenberg, who had done major work on the mansion.

During the Nicolay period Vyborg was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Northern Europe, a dynamic trade and cultural centre at the gateway to Russia. One could hear Russian, Finnish, Swedish, French and German spoken in the streets.

The summers in Monrepos brought Paul Nicolay close to the Finnish people. He started to learn their language, being already fluent in those other tongues, not to mention Greek and Latin. His father’s international career had made him familiar with the main European cities at an early age. Later, when Paul Nicolay’s life work took a turn completely different from what was planned and expected, his international experience proved to be of the greatest significance.

After his father’s early death in 1869, when Paul was only nine, Paul Nicolay’s mother took the children to Monrepos. After three years they moved to St Petersburg, where Paul went to the Gymnasium for seven years and later lived with his uncle Alexander Nicolay.

Groomed for a career

This uncle Alexander was then Minister of Education and a man of high influence in Russian cultural life. He saw to it that Paul studied law and after his graduation four years later (1885) worked in the chancellery of the Senate in St Petersburg. Paul was being groomed for a rapid career in civil administration. In his diary he writes about his passion for sailing and fencing and mentions the frequent balls and receptions in the imperial palace. Once he notes with some irony that he could now ”die in peace having held the hand of the Empress during two rounds”. In spite of his inborn shyness and reluctance to appear in public Paul Nicolay always showed a social attitude to people, and the servants were devoted to him. He had a good sense of humour but suffered all his life from asthma and ill health, resulting sometimes in an irritable temperament. His later eventful life shows how he defied these handicaps, even turning them into assets.

Decision and preparation

Eventually Paul Nicolay felt an increasing need to re-evaluate the direction of his life. In 1889 he nearly died of a severe disease. Then, at a Christian convention in Keswick, Britain (1890), he reached a final point of decision. Asking himself what he could do for the underprivileged in St Petersburg he started to visit hospitals and gather groups of ”izvozchshiks”, horsecab drivers. He wanted them to find a purpose beyond the street and a rotten salary.

Being a passionate sailor he used his yacht to visit fishermen’s homes along the Gulf of Finland together with two friends. The Finnish fishermen were puzzled about this weakly built gentleman with his bag full of books and his foreign accent. The little group illustrated their message with stories from their own lives. The fishermen spontaneusly offered eggs,milk and potatoes in return, and asked them to visit their relatives as well.

This proved to be a preparation for a considerably harder job, reaching out to the packed Russian prisons during the years 1896-1908. Having acquainted himself with the extraordinary work of the Finnish baroness and prison reformer Mathilda Wrede, Nicolay came to work closely with her in various prisons. He stayed in more than twenty prison towns from Archangelsk to Vladivostok, meeting thousands of prisoners and deported people. He also visited prisons in Finland. Being constantly plagued by illness on these extremely strenuous journeys he often felt totally inadequate, and at times he felt that he had reached the end.

In those years most doors were shut to legal work in the social and political fields. The economic misery was striking, as was the gap between the great masses of people and the privileged. Everywhere Paul Nicolay saw wasted human potential, victims of circumstances, and he clearly felt that the old system had served its time. The debate was going about the cure: should it be revolution, democratization, increased culture. Nicolay knew that any new system would depend on new people with inner qualities to make it work.

Students and Strategy

Then in Helsinki 1899 he met Dr. John Mott, a lawyer by profession and leader of the World Student Christian Federation. Mott, who was active on all continents, asked Nicolay whether similar work could be started in Russia. ”Russia is the land of great opportunities”, he answered. ”If we are persistent the doors will open”. But who could take on the formidable job of reaching the Russian student world? One night a clear thought crossed his mind that he might be the man!

That year, at 39, Nicolay decided to leave his job in the Senate, having ”served the Emperor for fourteen years”. Now was the time to serve another master. He opened his winter residence in St Petersburg for students. This radical step created considerable attention and criticism; even the Czar was angry.

From then on the World Student Christian Federation was his external framework, an effective point of contact with responsible people in many parts of the world. But Nicolay’s aim was never to build an organization or movement. He felt that Russia needed ”a renewal of the whole inner being of people through a living ideal, an unforgettable hope – the power which a contact with the source of life, Jesus Christ, can give.” This awareness helped bridge the gap which he felt separated him from the Russian students. His thinking encompassed the nation and the world but, at the same time, he mastered the difficult art of listening to people.

Never proselytized

The Lutheran Paul Nicolay, whose beloved mother had passed on her faith to him, had relatives within all main denominations and he never proselytized. Important to him was that Christians lived a faith relevant to the needs of their time. One student said, ”we were never pulled away from the church of our fathers but rather gained a more intimate understanding of its ritual, a new longing to serve our church as true Christians.”

Nicolay, who was a lawyer, not a theologian, did not originally have a particularly bright pichture of the Church, but he increasingly saw its potential. Through his characteristic way of working, from inside out, he exerted a deeper influence for instance on Finnish church life than anyone else during the first decades of the 20th century. This according to a doctor’s thesis by Dr Folke Winquist. At a national meeting of clergy in East Finland he was given the honorary ”title” ”Shepherd of the Clergy”.

Nicolay felt that Christians of his time too often forgot that the leaven of faith must penetrate all sectors, including industry and politics. ”We have to be familiar with the labour questions, all social problems and other issues in society, and effect them wherever we can.” The year he died he wrote, ”Everyone who deals with business knows how deeply profit hunger is rooted in our hearts. How difficult it is in business affairs to be completely straight. But God demands that from us. Even in children we notice the wish to amass to oneself ’the biggest bit’. Are we absolutely honest and just during our working hours, toward our workers, tenants, business associates and buyers? A person must have only ’one’ conscience in all sectors of life and only ’one’ morality. Do we grasp this?”

He could be outspoken enough: In the Grand Duchy of Finland General Nicolay Bobrikov had been appointed Governor General 1898. His programme of massive russification and destruction of Finland’s special status was supported by Czar Nicolay II, who refused to receive a representative Finnish delegation with their protest declaration against the flagrant violations, signed by 523,000 citizens. Although Paul Nicolay was not politically active he felt he could not stand passive when basic rights were brutally trespassed. Together with Mathilda Wrede he went to see Metropolitan Anthony of St Petersburg, asking him to intervene with the Czar. The Metropolitan answered that he had no influence, to which Nicolay replied, ”Every honest man has influence, and he who knows the good and does not do it, for him this is sin”. The Metropolitan went to see the Czar.

Getting at the roots

Nicolay was deeply preoccupied with the individual person. He could spend hours with a student in his attic room and when he left, a personal problem had been solved or the unpaid rent was on the table. Visible results were often disappointingly slow, which clearly also had to do with Nicolay’s conviction that easily won victories would not last, that small decisive progress was of more value in the long run. He would never be satisfied with a general improvement of the moral level, which many realized was greatly needed in Russia. He wanted to get at the roots.

It has been said that Nicolay’s key aim was freedom. That is, people being liberated from bonds of fear, self centredness, bitterness and defeatism. True inner freedom was to him a condition for other levels of freedom. Knowing that intellectualism alone never could create new life in a person he often confronted students with the question: ”What are you living for?” He inspired them to take initiative and engage themselves in helping their suppressed, suffering people. What impressed them was clearly not Nicolay’s intellectual arguments but his wholehearted, sincere faith. But he shunned fanaticism and never tried to suppress the right to reason or to follow intellectual honesty, which was much appreciated by the students.

Having himself inherited from his father and grandfather a strong sense of duty, Nicolay often pointed out to the students the importance of attention to detail in all planning work. He never left a letter unanswered or neglected small things entrusted to him. Simple things were important in building trust and maintaining a living contact with people. Much of what he practised is today, hundred years later, stressed in business life.

A Price to Pay

In addition to his world wide responsibilities Nicolay was running a major estate, thus being in fact familiar with most aspects of business. He felt that a person’s attitudes and business ethics were directly related to his inner motives and aims. The basis of his own ethics was honesty, transparency and care. An example of this was when the city of Vyborg offered a major sum for land they wanted to buy for city development. Nicolay, who employed many, was ready to sell for a third of the price provided a guarantee was given that none of the workmen would suffer any consequences.

Considering Nicolay’s background and circumstances, one is struck by his clarity on social issues and the question of responsibility of those with possessions. Mathilda Wrede and he often discussed how twisted it was that only a few enjoyed the fruits of the economy whilst others only had to carry the burdens.

With so many strong bonds between them it seemed obvious that both of these two had hoped for marriage. In full unity they decided, however, that their different life tasks could never be combined with marriage and family. They remained close friends and suppported each other in different ways.

Success and Persecution

Nicolay was invited to speak at a number of West European universities, amongst them in Berlin, Lausanne, Basel and Zürich, as well as in America and Japan. Universities in Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia were reached and in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania national student movements were soon growing. But the task in Russia was always Nicolay’s priority and was supported by a network of close friends.

A large group of students started to take leadership themselves, many of whom in their sense of rootlessness had contemplated suicide at some point but had later found a new direction in life. Around 1902 an increasing number of Orthodox students had joined Nicolay in St Petersburg and at this point the Czar made his work easier. The students wanted to find a new understanding of their own people, feeling that an historic task had been given to them.

But difficulties and persecution followed. Radicals accused Nicolay of drawing students away from politics, the police harassed him, some Orthodox circles accused him of secretarianism and people in his own Lutheran church failed to see what he aimed for.

Work increased steadily during the next twenty years; in St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Samara, Rostov, Voronezh etc. The year 1913 marked a breakthrough in Russia with a small group of totally dedicated people at the heart of the expansion. Vladimir Marzinkovsky, who during a period was professor of ethics at Samara University, all his life an ardent Orthodox and son of an Orthodox priest, gave up his career in order to work full time as Nicolay’s closest ally.

War, Revolution and Nicolay’s Legacy

At the outbreak of World War I Nicolay realized that the social upheaval in Russia after the war might become worse than the war itself. But he had to be faithful to his part, irrespective of what was to come. At the beginning of the war there was thus a considerable force of young people of a strong spiritual and moral calibre in Russia.

In his diary Nicolay describes the turmoil in the strategic border city of Vyborg during 1918, when revolution and the Finnish war of independence raged simultaneously. 23 officers of the Czar’s army were hanged in the Monrepos park. When Nicolay was to be executed, one Red Guard shouted that the Baron had saved his family from starvation. The whole group of Reds turned on their heals and vanished. Like so many in Vyborg Nicolay was overjoyed when the Whites arrived on April 29 but he was shocked and saddened by the following wave of revenge towards often quite innocent people.

In 1919 Monrepos was Nicolay´s only home. Before his death that year he still met students in St Petersburg, then called Petrograd. Having genuinely expected more freedom to work in the open for their cause, they now had to find other ways.

Paul Nicolay had helped them find an independently rooted faith and a commitment. This turned out to be the best possible basis for what was to come. The students shaped cells with strategy according to different circumstances but with the same overruling aim. It has been claimed that independent cells managed to operate throughout the Stalin era. As late as 1990 a leading Orthodox in St Petersburg told me what an indelible impression Nicolay and Marzinkowski had made on him.

Some years after the Soviet rule had ended a big, flat block of stone was found by a diver on the sea bed outside Monrepos. With his finger he could identify the words ”Paul Nicolay”. Today the stone has been placed at the Nicolay family graves by the shore. And now, hundred years after Nicolay’s active years, his person is once more coming into focus as a guide towards a new future.

(Paul Gundersen: PAUL NICOLAY OF MONREPOS His Life and Legacy 2011)


Paul Gundersen

Paul Gundersen, who was an executive within the Finnish Nokia Group, had often heard Paul Nicolay’s name mentioned in his childhood home. But it was his own work in international business that made him realize the unusual relevance for today of Nicolay’s convictions and methods. As a schoolboy in 1938, when Vyborg was still part of independent Finland, he visited Nicolay’s home Monrepos for the first time together with his cousin Samuel Lehtonen, whose father Aleksi Lehtonen later became archbishop of Finland. In the years before the Russian revolution Aleksi Lehtonen had been one of the thousands of students in Russia and the then Grand Duchy of Finland influenced by Paul Nicolay. Nicolay sometimes called him ”my son” and in many ways helped prepare him for his later task. In 1888 Gundersen’s grandfather Senator Emil af Hällström, who was born 1860 like Paul Nicolay, founded and was chief editor of the first Finnish language newspaper in Vyborg. In 1944 Paul Gundersen was wounded in the battle of Ihantala just outside Vyborg, the biggest single battle in all Nordic war history. His short biography of Nicolay also appeared in Russian.

  28.01.2013  A. K