The tale of love between the Russian girl Ekaterina Desnitskaya and the Prince of Siam, Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh, is quite a popular story among Russian tour guides and tourists. But, as often as not, the story is told without any details about the lives of these heroes and how they are deeply intertwined with significant events that shaped the twentieth century.
Katya and Chakrabongse meet in St. Petersburg
Prince Chakrabongse was the second son of Chulalongkorn The Great (Rama V) – considered one of the most revered rulers of Siam for modernizing Siam while saving the country from colonization, he was known as a great reformer. In May 1898, King Chulalongkon sent Prince Chakrabongse to study at the elite Page Corps military academy in Russia. The choice of school was no accident. By the end of the 19th Century, Siam was facing the threat of sharing the same fate as its neighbours at the hands of the western colonialists. With French troops building up around Siam’s borders King Chulalongkorn turned to Russia’s last Emperor, Nicholas II, for help in fending off the Foreign plunderers. The pair had enjoyed warm relations since Crown Prince Nicholas’ visit to Bangkok a few years previously, and when King Chulalongkorn visited Nicholas II in Peterhof, Russia, a picture of the two together in the European newspapers was enough to make the French scrap any plans of invading Siam and retreat, lest they sour relations with Russia. Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, 13-year-old Prince Chakrabongse was studying hard to master the Russian classics. With all the classes conducted in Russian, the young prince had to study the language in extra classes, as well as playing the piano, violin, balalaika, dancing, horse riding and hunting; all of which were new and challenging activities for the Siam prince. Nevertheless, in September, 1901, Chakrabongse passed all his exams with flying colours and a year later was made a cornet of a Hussar regiment. The Prince then spent autumn and winter of 1903-1904 in Siam, whereupon he developed an intense relationship with his sister. People started talking about the new affair. Eventually the Prince sought council from his father, who told him: “Such marriages are not accepted nowadays. You are a presumptive heir and can marry anybody you want (from another noble family)”. Prince Chakrabongse was studying in Russia during the Russian-Japanese War (1904-1905), which is when he met and fell in love with 17-year-old red head, Ekaterina Desnitskaya (Katya). After completing his training at the Military Academy, Prince Chakrabongse was made a colonel and awarded the medal of St. Andrew, before heading for Constantinople, where he and Katya married in secret at an Orthodox church. Prince Chakrabongse’s parents knew nothing of the marriage at the time.
The Rise of a Duchess
Prince Chakrabongse then returned alone to his homeland, where he was made a general and became the closest advisor to King Rama V, who was dead-set against his son’s marriage to a foreigner. The news of the prince taking a non-Buddhist commoner wife was widely considered scandalous. However, Katya eventually gained the support of Queen Saovabha. The young westerner willingly took the Queen’s advice and swapped her European clothes for traditional Thai garments. The fact that Katya was pregnant also brought the two women closer together. Prince Chula, the son of Katya and Chakrabongse, was born on 28th March, 1908. His birth was concurrent with the weekday, hour, and almost to the moment of Prince Vajiravudh’s (the first heir of the throne) birth as well as Chakrabongse’s birth. Although these miraculously matching dates were widely seen as a fortuitous sign, the King is said to have been unimpressed by the coincidence. However, two years later the King accidentally saw his grandson in the royal palace. In the evening he told his wife: “I met your grandson today. He’s so nice. He resembles his father. And he doesn’t look a European at all. I loved the boy from the fist moment I saw him”. King Rama V then awarded prince of the blood status to little Chula, meaning that the boy had the right to inherit the throne. Later, the first son of Rama V, Vajiravudh (Rama VI), made Katya the Dutchess of Phitsanulok and legalized her marriage to Prince Chakrabongse.
Seven Year Itch
Prince Chakrabongse was wealthy in all respects. He owned several factories and his son had the right to inherit the throne. The future seemed bright, but after seven years of marriage, his relationship with Katya became distant. Katya’s isolation in Siam turned into a longing for her homeland but following the murder of the Russian royal family in 1918, going home wasn’t an option. While Katya was away from Siam, her husband met a young Thai Princesses, 15-year-old Javalit. They became close and Javalit moved in with Prince Chakrabongse. Katya returned to learn that the rumors she’d heard of her husband falling for his young niece were true. Chakrabongse wanted to make Javalit his second wife and for the first time, the culture gap was too vast to be crossed. Katya could not accept her husband having a second wife, and the prince could not understand the western concept of a woman wanting to be the only wife. The Queen gave her official permission for a divorce, ending thirteen years of marriage. The family fell apart and Katya left the country, promising never to return to Siam again, but less than a year later she had to attend her ex-husband’s funeral. At age 37, Prince Chakrabongse died suddenly of pneumonia. King Rama VI vetoed Chakrabongse’s testament in favor of Princess Javalit and divided the king’s estate equally between Javalit and Katya. Katya moved on to Beijing with her brother, who was serving as Chief of the Chinese Eastern Railway, and then headed for Shanghai, where she met and married former US soldier and engineer, Harry Clinton Stone.
A Life More Ordinary For Prince Chula
Young Prince Chula remained at the royal palace. In the early 1920s he was sent to study in England. His father left him an allowance, which grew significantly after Princess Javalit’s death. Chula bought his mother a house near Paris, where he spent his holidays. In 1925 the last surviving son of Rama V, Prince Prajadhipok, became the King of Siam (Rama VII), but these were troubled times with the Siamese economy dragged down by the Great Depression. With the situation in the country deteriorating with each month, Rama VII abdicated in March 1935, in favor of his nephew. At the time, Prince Chula was in England, and despite all his efforts he couldn’t return to Siam. Democracy was in full swing and new rulers were already running the country. Nobody was interested in the fate of the half-Russian prince of the blood, who had no strong supporters. He and Prince Vira set up a garage and competed in well-known international races. Chula had inherited his father’s organizational skills and his cars won the most prestigious pan-european races. He eventually met and married American Elizabeth Hunter. They married in 1938and the young couple managed to visit Siam before the war. Chula was later denied the right to inherit the throne. At the urgent requests of her son, who was worried by the situation in pre-war Europe, Katya and her new husband left France and moved to the US. Chula stayed with his family and Vira in England and both joined the British civil militia during World War II. Then, in 1956, Prince Chula’s daughter Narisa was born. In later years, Narisa Chakrabongse and her aunt wrote a book about her grandfather’s romance with Russian noblewoman, Ekaterina Desnitskaya (Katya).