Kateryna Desnytska and Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Siam (now Thailand), with their infant son Chula Chakrabongse. Photo: open source
Kateryna Desnytska was born in a wealthy family Lutsk, Volyn Oblast on April 27, 1886, one of twelve children. This was her parents’ second marriage – together they raised four children from the mother’s first marriage, six from the father’s first marriage and two more children of their own. All the children were treated equally and received a good education. When Kateryna was two, her father, a respected and influential chief judge of Lutsk District Court, died. After her father’s death, Kateryna’s mother sold the family property and moved to Kyiv with her children.
Kateryna studied at the Fundukleyiv Women’s Gymnasium in Kyiv. After graduating in 1904, she and her elder brother traveled to St. Petersburg, where they settled with her godmother. Kateryna’s brother attended the university and Kateryna started studying at the Medical Nursing School. Russia was getting ready for war with Japan, so such schools were popular among young girls from the upper classes.
Kateryna was a very attractive and sociable young lady and an excellent conversationalist, so it did not take her long to become a popular socialite in Russian high society.
In March 1905, Kateryna attended a grand ball, where she met a young hussar, who had been invited by Tsar Nicholas II to study in Russia. Perhaps she was attracted by his swarthy exotic looks or his foreign accent… who knows, but it was somewhat later that Kateryna learned that her handsome beau was none other than His Highness Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, Prince of Siam, son of King Rama V of Siam.
Today we know Siam as Thailand, one of the most popular holiday destinations for tourists. But, in the early 20th century, very few people in the Russian Empire knew where Siam was, as it was considered a distant exotic country full of inexplicable mysteries, with an ancient culture and peculiar customs.
When Kateryna met the prince, he had just graduated from the Imperial Page Corps, was promoted to an appropriate military rank and was getting ready to study at the Academy of General Staff in Russia. Although both young people were very much in love, Kateryna probably realized that her romance had no future and volunteered to work as a nurse in Manchuria where the Russian troops were trying to hold their positions against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
At first, Prince Chakrabongse was devastated by Kateryna’s decision to go to Manchuria, but could not help admiring her bold decision. He wrote countless letters, addressing her as “my dearest fiancée”, sending her flowers through a special imperial postal service. After the war, Kateryna returned to Saint Petersburg with three medals and commendations for her exemplary courage and dedication.
Prince Chakrabongse flooded Kateryna with flowers, persistently ignoring messages from his family in Siam informing him that a string of “beautiful and worthy” girls had been found for him. The prince stubbornly refused to succumb to pressure from home and insisted that no one but Kateryna was to become his wife. When Prince Chakrabongse proposed to Kateryna, she accepted but on one condition — she was to be his only wife. Kateryna knew that Siamese tradition tolerated polygamy and Siamese monarchs and princes had always had more than one wife; this was a sign of their royal status. Prince Chakrabongse swore that Kateryna would always be “his one and only”.
As Russian priests refused to join a Buddhist bridegroom and an Orthodox Christian bride in matrimony, the couple traveled to Constantinople (Istanbul), where they found an Orthodox priest who agreed to perform the ceremony for a considerable sum of money. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Egypt and traveled to Singapore, and from there Prince Chakrabongse proceeded to Siam, leaving his young wife behind, as he wished to prepare his parents and the royal court for his foreign wife. In fact, at the beginning, the royal family of Siam disapproved of this unknown foreign woman and declared the union a misalliance.
Kateryna adapted quickly to princely traditions and court life, learned the Siamese language and charmed her parents-in-law who named her Princess Phitsanulok (Mom Katerin Na Phitsanulok), thus entitling her to be married to a prince of royal blood. In 1908, she gave birth to a son, Chula, who, in view of the fact that Prince Chakrabongse’s elder brother was childless, became the first in line to inherit the throne.
In 1910, Prince Chakrabongse’s father died and his older brother Rama VI ascended the throne. Kateryna and her husband, now heir-apparent, traveled to visit her relatives in Ukraine. First, they stopped in St. Petersburg, where they were received by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and later Kateryna traveled to Kyiv where some of her relatives lived.
In 1912, after nine years of marriage, the peaceful life of the royal family was shaken — Kateryna found out that her husband was having an affair with a fifteen-year old distant niece, a princess named Chuvalit. Prince Chakrabongse elevated the young girl to the official status of royal wife, but swore that his love for Kateryna remained as strong as ever. However, Kateryna refused to accept the traditional practice of polygamy and filed for divorce, which was granted. Kateryna also turned down a very large sum of money offered as alimony and child-support and accepted only 1,200 sterling pounds to be paid annually — a very considerable sum of money at that time, but far below the royal offer. However, Kateryna was forced to leave her son and heir to the throne, little Chulu, who never forgave his mother. He had no desire to communicate with her and did not understand why his parents had divorced and why his mother left Siam. Kateryna truly wanted to go back to Ukraine, but World War I, the Russian revolution and civil wars in the country made that journey quite impossible.
Prince Chakrabongse died of pneumonia during a diplomatic mission to China in 1920. Kateryna attended the royal funeral, but did not stay in Siam. She moved to China where she lived with her diplomat brother, bought herself a house, worked with the Red Cross, and enjoyed the social events organized by the White Russian community. There, she met an American engineer, Harry Clinton Stone; they got married, but when the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in the late 1930s, the couple moved to Paris, and later to the United States. Eventually, they divorced and Kateryna moved to France, settling near Paris, where her brother Ivan’s widow lived with her children. She died at 74 years of age in Paris on January 3, 1960.
Kateryna’s son, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, never ascended the throne of Siam because of his parents’ divorce. When very young, he was sent to study in the United Kingdom, where he spent his teenage years attending Harrow School, and graduated with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Trinity College, University of Cambridge. He became a historian, and wrote the history of the Royal House of Chakri.
In 1938, Chula married Elizabeth Hunter, an English woman (known as Lisba).
Their daughter, Narisa Chakrabongse was born in England in 1956, and today divides her time between Bangkok and London. Narisa Chakrabongse’s son and Kateryna’s great-grandson, “Hugo” (Thai name – Chulachak Chakrabongse), is one of Thailand’s most popular rock stars.
In 1994, Narisa Chakrabongse published a book about her grandparents – Katya & the Prince of Siam– a lovely story of love and marriage between a beautiful Ukrainian girl, Kateryna Desnytska and a dashing hussar, HRH Prince Chakrabongse of Siam.
Sadly, many reviews of this book and other articles about this extraordinary royal courtship and romance refer to Kateryna Desnytska as Russian.
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