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A Siamese Princess from the Land of Volyn
The life story of Kateryna Desnytska, a Ukrainian woman from Lutsk, could easily inspire a writer of adventure stories and romance or be used by Hollywood or Bollywood for making a thrilling blockbuster. Andriy Hlazovy tells a story that has all the necessary ingredients — a provincial girl falling in love with a prince at court; intrigues, wars, revolutions and, of course, great love.
Kateryna Desnytska was born into the family of a prominent judge in the spring of 1886 in the Ukrainian town of Lutsk. She was one of the twelve children. When her father died, Kateryna was not yet three years old. Some members of her family, Kateryna included, moved to Kyiv where she was accepted as a student at the famous Fundukleyevska himnaziya (secondary school of advanced studies).
Later, in the early twentieth century, Kateryna and one of her elder brothers moved to Saint Petersburg, “the northern capital” of Russia (the other capital was Moscow). Kateryna’s brother went to study at the university and Kateryna studied at a medical nurses’ school. Russia was steaming ahead into war with Japan and such schools were popular for “patriotic reasons” among young girls from the upper classes.
In addition to being a very good looking girl, Kateryna was an excellent conversationalist and it did not take her, a girl from a provincial Ukrainian town, too long to become “a lioness” as it was called then, of high society.
In 1905, at one of the balls she attended, she made the acquaintance of a young officer, a dashing young man of the Imperial Hussars. His somewhat swarthy face and a slight foreign accent were hardly an obstacle to love at first sight — the Russian Empire was the biggest country in the world, peopled by so many various ethics, and Kateryna was not put off by such trifles as an accent or a slightly darker skin. It was later that Kateryna learned that her beau was His Highness Chakrabon, Prince of Siam.
Love at first sight and the realities of life
Siam is better known these days as Thailand, and the main attraction for tourists from all over the world in that country are its wonderful resorts. But in the early twentieth century, very few people in the Russian Empire would know where Siam was located on the map. Kateryna could have read in a geography book that Siam was an exotic country full of mysteries, with an ancient culture and peculiar customs.
Back in 1897, the Siamese King Rama V Chulalongkorn paid an official visit to Russia. The Russian Emperor Nicholas II offered the king to send one of his sons to Saint Petersburg to study there. The offer was accepted and in the spring of 1898 the second son of the king, who had studied in Britain, came to Russia’s “northern capital” and was admitted to the Imperial Page Corps.
The Corps which had been founded by the Empress Elizaveta (Elizabeth) had become an elite military school for aristocrats, the most prestigious one in the whole of the Russian Empire. Incidentally, among the distinguished graduates of the school was Pavlo Skoropadsky, later a general, who in 1918 was destined to become the last hetman of Ukraine.
Prince Chakrabon, who had the status of a guest of honor of the Russian Imperial family, lived in the Winter Palace, the residence of the Russian monarchs, in a separate lavishly furnished and decorated apartment.
When Kateryna met the prince he had just graduated from the Imperial Page Corps and was promoted to an appropriate military rank. The prince went to study at the Academy of General Staff — but Kateryna, who, after she had learnt who that rakish gallant actually was, thought that her romance had no future — he was a prince and who was she? — and volunteered to go to Manchuria as a nurse (Russia occupied Manchuria from 1900 until its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905), where the Russian troops tried to hold their positions against the Japanese.
The realities of life at the front proved to be shocking — the uniforms that the soldiers and officers wore were a far cry from what she had seen at the balls; there was a lot of blood and a lot of great human suffering. But she stayed on — such was her choice.
Letters and flowers
Her Prince Charming (very literally so), who at first was stunned by her decision to go to Manchuria, admired her for such a brave move, kept writing her letters and sending cables, in which he called her “my fiancee.” He also kept sending her flowers through a special imperial post service. Prince Chakrabon also insisted that he be sent to the front but his requests were politely denied — nobody wanted a diplomatic scandal that the news of a Siamese prince fighting on the Russian side against the Japanese might cause.
After the war was over, Kateryna returned to Saint Petersburg — she had been decorated for bravery with three medals, one of which was the Order of St George which was awarded to soldiers for feats of exceptional courage.
Prince Chakrabon flooded her with flowers, persistently ignoring messages from Siam informing him that a string of “most beautiful and worthy” girls had been found for him to take for a wife. The prince stubbornly refused to succumb to pressures from home and insisted it was Kateryna and nobody else who was to be his wife.
Here another character enters our story — Nay Pum, a Siamese too, who was a sort of a body guard, a valet and confidant of the prince, all rolled into one. He must have been of the aristocratic blood too — otherwise he would not have been admitted to the Imperial Page School alongside with the prince himself.
This Nay Pum was dead against the prince marrying a foreigner. Nay Pum kept repeating that none of the Siamese princes in many hundreds of years had ever married a foreigner. To make matters worse, Kateryna was by far not of royal ancestry and that circumstance would make the marriage morganatic — an unacceptable and unheard thing in Siam!
But Prince Chakrabon ignored all the warnings and proposed to Kateryna. Kateryna accepted the proposal but on one condition — she, Kateryna, was to be his only wife. She knew that Siamese traditions tolerated polygamy, and that the Siamese monarchs and princes had always had more than one wife — it was one of the signs of their royal status. Prince Chakrabon swore that Kateryna would always be “his one and only.”
Before we go on with the central story, a few words about Nay Pum. He did not return to Siam and stayed in Russia. He converted from Buddhism to Orthodox Christianity, and Nicholas II was his godfather! It does indicate that he was much more than just a bodyguard and a valet. During WWI, he served in the Russian cavalry, and after the collapse of the Russian Empire, he took the Bolshevik side and, at least according to some sources, worked in the ChK — the precursor of the KGB.
The royal wedding
Russian priests refused to wed a Buddhist bridegroom and an Orthodox Christian bride. They were advised to go abroad and get it done there. In Constantinople (Istanbul), they found an Orthodox priest who agreed to perform the ceremony for a sizable sum of money.
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Egypt. Then they went to Singapore, and from there Prince Chakrabon proceeded to Siam, leaving his young wife behind for several weeks — he had to prepare his parents and the court for the shock they would be experiencing if he came home with a foreign wife.
His “preparatory work” must have cushioned the shock. In a short time, Kateryna charmed her parents in law and the court as well. She learned the Siamese language quick enough to be fluent in it.
Kateryna, even though she apparently did not convert to Buddhism, was made by a royal order “a duchess of the city of Pitsanulok,” and thus was entitled to be married to “the prince of the royal blood.” In 1908 she gave birth to a son, Chula, who, in view of the fact that Prince Chakrabon’s elder brother was childless, became the first in line to ascend the throne.
Kateryna’s new status allowed her to have two palaces (winter and summer residences), her own court, servants and guards. She had her own zoo, and a white elephant whom she called Kozak (Cossack).
In 1910, the aged king, Prince Chakrabon’s father, died and his brother inherited the throne.
Kateryna and her husband, now heir apparent, traveled to the Russian Empire — she wanted to pay a visit to her relatives in Ukraine. But first they went to Saint Petersburg where they were received by Nicholas II, and later Kateryna went to Kyiv where her relatives lived at that time. One can imagine the commotion her arrival caused both among the relatives and general public, and the press too.
Times of trouble
In 1912, an attempt was made by a group of rebellious officers to topple the king. Chakrabon was suspected of coveting power and supporting the coup but he categorically denied any involvement. When the uprising was crushed, he demanded that his non-involvement in the abortive coup be officially recognized, and then he asked that the plotters be granted amnesty.
The political upheaval proved to be not the only circumstance that shook the peace of Chakrabon’s family — Kateryna found out that her husband was having an affair with a sixteen-year old girl, a princess named Chuvalit. Chakrabon elevated the girl to the official status of wife but kept swearing that his love for Kateryna remained as strong as ever. But the Ukrainian woman would not accept the Siamese polygamous traditions and asked for divorce. The divorce was granted. Kateryna refused a very large sum of money offered as alimony and child-support and accepted only 1,200 pounds sterling to be paid annually — a very considerable sum of money at that time too but far below the royal magnanimous offer.
Kateryna wanted to go back to Ukraine but could not — the world war, revolutions in Russia followed by civil wars, made her return impossible.
Her ex-husband died in 1920 when he was on a diplomatic mission to China. Two generals who were also members of the diplomatic mission died too, and “Spanish influenza” that took millions of lives around the world, was the suspected killer.
Kateryna was present at the funeral. Chakrabon’s relatives insisted that her son Chula, as a potential heir to the throne, stay in Siam. And Kateryna, who was put under severe pressure, gave her consent. But he did not become a king anyway.
Kateryna chose to live in China, in a Russian emigre community. In China, she met an US citizen, Harry Clinton Stone. They got married and moved to Paris, and later to the USA. Kateryna died in Paris in 1962, at the age of 72.
Her son Chula grew up to be a university-educated historian. He was promoted to general, traveled much and settled in Britain. He made a half-hearted attempt to return to Siam in his official capacity of a Siamese prince but soon realized that he was not welcome there — he was half-Slavic after all, and western educated. However, after the death of his stepmother, princess Chuvalit, the Siamese government raised his allowance, and he bought a house in Paris, though he continued to live on the permanent basis in London. He owned a racing car and another Siamese, Bira, drove that car taking part in car races.
Prince Chula is survived by his daughter Narissari. She lives in Paris, art and art history being her major occupations. Also, she heads a Thai ecological fund. She published a book about her grandparents — a touching story of their love. She called the book — Katya and a Siamese Prince.
Narissari, who has preserved the extent letters written by her grandparents to each other, claims that Kateryna could not forgive her husband reneging on his pledge not to succumb to the ancient Thai tradition and not to bring another wife to his household — but she never stopped loving him.
Prince Chakrabon as a graduate of the military academy
Prince Chula. A photo taken for his mother
King Rama V Chulalongkorn, thanks to whom Prince Chakrabon