Ukrainian Princess of Thailand

  • Ukrainian Princess of Thailand
Issue 53, January 2013.

Ukrainian Princess of Thailand

The story about a Ukrainian woman from the Volyn region, Kateryna Desnytska is without a doubt an incredible mixture of adventure, romance and thrill, which could easily be turned into bestseller.

Born into the family of a prominent judge in the spring of 1886 in the Ukrainian town of Lutsk, Kateryna Desnytska was one of twelve children. When her father died, Kateryna who was only three years old, moved to Kyiv with some members of her family, where she was later accepted as a student at the famous Fundukleyevska Gymnasium (Secondary School of Advanced Studies).
As time passed in the early twentieth century, Kateryna and one of her elder brothers moved to Saint Petersburg, where Kateryna’s brother studied at the university and Kateryna started attending Medical Nursing School. Russia was steaming ahead into war with Japan and such schools were popular for “patriotic reasons” among young girls from the upper classes. Kateryna was a very good-looking girl and an excellent conversationalist and it did not take her 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 spectacular young man of the Imperial Hussars. His somewhat swarthy face and a slight foreign accent were hardly an obstacle to love at first sight, as Kateryna was not put off by such trifles as an accent or slightly darker skin. It was later that Kateryna learned that her beau was His Highness Chakrabon, Prince of Siam.
Today we better know Siam as Thailand, which is one of the most popular vacation destinations for tourists from all over the world due to its numerous wonderful resorts. But in the early twentieth century, very few people in the Russian Empire even knew where Siam was located as it was considered 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 and the offer was kindly accepted and in the spring of 1898 the second son of the king, who had studied in Britain, came to Saint Petersburg and was admitted to the Imperial Page Corps - an elite military school for aristocrats, the most prestigious one in the whole of the Russian Empire.
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 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 and went to study at the Academy of General Staff. Kateryna, thought that her romance had no future and volunteered to go as a nurse to Manchuria where the Russian troops tried to hold their positions against the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
Prince Chakrabon, who at first was stunned by her decision to go to Manchuria, admired her for such a brave move, kept writing her letters, in which he called her “my fiancée.” He also kept sending her flowers through a special imperial post service. 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. Soon Prince Chakrabon proposed to Kateryna and she accepted the proposal but on one condition — she, 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.”
As Russian priests refused to wed a Buddhist bridegroom and an Orthodox Christian bride they went to Constantinople (Istanbul),where they easily found an Orthodox priest who agreed to perform the ceremony for a sizable sum of money. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Egypt and 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. However in a short time, Kateryna learned the Siamese language quick enough to be fluent in it and charmed her parents in law and was named by royal order “a duchess of the city of Pitsanulok” and thus was entitled 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 Chakrabon’s elder brother was childless, became the first in line to ascend the throne.
In 1910, Prince Chakrabon’s father died and his brother inherited the throne. Kateryna and her husband, now heir-apparent, travelled to her relatives in Ukraine. But first they went to St. Petersburg where they were received by Nicholas II, and later Kateryna went to Kyiv where her relatives lived at the time.
In 1912, the peace of Chakrabon’s family was shaken — 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, which was granted. Kateryna refused 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 magnanimous offer. Kateryna wanted to go back to Ukraine but could not because of the world war, and revolutions in Russia followed by civil wars, making her return impossible.
Her ex-husband died in 1920 when he was on a diplomatic mission to China and 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, however he did not become a king anyway.
Kateryna chose to live in China, in a Russian community. In China, she met an US citizen, Harry Clinton Stone and they got married and moved to Paris, and later to the US. Kateryna died in Paris in 1962, at the age of 72.
Her son Chula grew up to be a university-educated historian who travelled extensively and settled in Britain. He made a half-hearted attempt to return to Siam in his official capacity as 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 a permanent basis in London. Prince Chula’s daughter – Narisa, lives in Paris. She is interested in art and art history, she also heads a Thai ecological fund. In 1994, she published a book about her grandparents “Katya & The Prince of Siam” — an ultimately tragic love affair and marriage story of a beautiful Ukrainian girl and an Eastern prince, HRH Prince Chakrabon of Siam.