Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

AH, LOVE: King Rama’s son and the skating rink girl

AH, LOVE: King Rama's son and the skating rink girl
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop

 

The kingdom of Thailand has a strange property: every single cat there is Siamese. Even if you bring some Norwegian forest or Scottish Fold there. Before you know it, it turns out to be Siamese, although its phenotype does not change. The secret is simple: Thailand is Siam, so this country was called until 1932.

Beautiful name, which translates as «smile» (there are other versions), not as pretentious as Thailand, which means «land of free people» (you understand that if people are truly free, they do not need to be called so). However, Thailand really didn’t live that badly, the neighboring countries were almost all in colonial bondage, and England and France had been trying for so long and unsuccessfully to figure out who was going to take over Thailand that no one ever did in the end.

Of course, Thailand benefited from this and remained a relatively prosperous place for a long time. It got to the point where the Thai language didn’t have a particular word for «hunger» — you had to explain it using many words, such as: «a time when there is not enough food». Are there many such languages and countries in the world?

Thailand was not a closed country and interacted with Europe quite actively. Since the Russian Empire had no time to establish colonies in the Far East (it had enough to do with those who were closer), its relations with Thailand were quite favorable. When he was heir to the throne, Nicholas II visited Siam, was well received, and even received a unique gift — 200 purebred Siamese cats.

The King of Siam also visited the Russian Empire. But it is exciting that Siam had some special ties with Ukraine — the Kyiv composer Petro Shchurovsky even wrote the melody of the anthem of the royal family of Siam, which was the national anthem of this country until 1932. However, an even more romantic note than the national anthem was brought into the history of Thailand (then still Siam) by a woman from Kyiv…

King Chulalongkorn of Siam, aka Rama V (his son, King Vajiravudh, decided that in Europe, real Siamese names would not be spoken anyway, and ordered all the kings of his Chakri dynasty to be called Rama, the founder of the dynasty — Rama I and so on in order) understood the benefit of mastering the heritage of the West by Siam and gladly sent his children to the West to study. The king’s favorite son, Prince Chakrabongse, was no exception.

 

Чакрабон Пуванат, принц Питсанулок — тайский фельдмаршал, был 40-м ребенком короля Таиланда Рамы V Чулалонгкорна и четвертым ребенком королевы Шри Баджариндры
Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, the Prince of Phitsanulok — Thai Field Marshal, was the 40th child of King Rama V Chulalongkorn of Thailand and the fourth child of Queen Sri Bajarindra / wikipedia.org

 

He traveled first to England and then to the Russian Empire, where his father had just recently visited. He graduated from the Page Corps there and was the best student in it, and according to some reports, studied at the General Staff Academy as well. But, in addition to mastering the military sciences (it clearly came in handy: in his homeland, he held the post of Chief of General Staff and founded the Royal Air Force of Siam), he found time for absolutely civilian affairs — love, for example …

Konstantin Paustovsky is a famous writer, and many of you have probably read him. Do you remember his «Story of a Life», which is mainly autobiographical? In its first book, «Distant Years», Paustovsky describes the years of his studies in the famous First Kyiv Gymnasium. In particular, he recalls how with his older brother Boris danced at the skating rink, a good friend of their sister. In the novel, her name is Katya Vesnitskaya.

According to him, it was like this: «Ice skaters cleared a wide circle on the ice. Street boys, snooping underfoot on homemade skates, were given nudges to calm them down, and the sliding and slow dance began. Vesnitskaya’s long braids were flying around to the beat of the waltz. They disturbed her, and she, without ceasing to dance, threw them over her chest. She haughtily looked from under half-lidded eyelids at the admiring spectators … Could I think then at the rink that the life of Vesnitskaya will be much more unexpected than all my dreams?»

Further, Paustovsky writes that Prince Chakrabongse traveled on some business to Kyiv, and he fell ill; after recovering for some time, he stayed in Kyiv to get stronger and saw Katya at one of the balls. The prince immediately fell in love with her and then returned to Kyiv to offer her his hand and heart. She agreed, though not immediately, and left with the prince for Siam.

Of course, such a story seems like a fairy tale — didn’t Paustovsky make it up? After all, he was writing a work of fiction, not a documentary, and not everything in life was as it was on the pages of his books. And this story turned out to be not documentary accurate. But it happened in reality, although not exactly as described in the book. However, it is similar enough.

Let us immediately clarify the surname — not Vesnitskaya, but Desnitskaya. The daughter of the chairman of the Lutsk District Court really studied in Kyiv, graduated from the Fundukleev Gymnasium, and was almost certainly acquainted with Paustovsky’s sister. Her name was Katya, not Marusya, which can be found in several sources — I don’t know where this came from…

 

Катерина Ивановна Десницкая — принцесса Сиама, На Пхитсанулок<em>, </em>жена сиамского принца Чакрабона Пуваната
Katerina Ivanov Desnitskaya — Princess of Siam, Na Phitsanulok, wife of the Siamese prince Chakrabongse Puvanat / wikipedia.org

 

After graduating from gymnasium, she moved to St. Petersburg, entered the school that trained nurses of mercy, and already there, not in Kyiv, met at one of the balls cornet of His Majesty’s Life Guards Hussar Regiment, the only officer from the entire graduating class of the Page Corps, listed on the «golden plaque» of the best of the best. Basically, it’s a brilliant game, but here’s the trouble — the Siamese prince, the royal son…

A quick onslaught of his love problem prince could not solve — Katya voluntarily went to the Russo-Japanese War as a sister of mercy at the other end of a vast country. To be closer to her, the brave prince even tried to transfer to the active army, but who would let him under Japanese bullets?

However, the proverb «Out of sight — out of heart» did not work here — he wrote to her incessantly, even sending expensive lightning telegrams that just appeared at that time.

In their correspondence, the exotic name of the prince is gradually replaced by his pet nickname, Lek — in translation, it means «little» — he is, after all, the youngest son, and this is a clear hint that his advances to Katya are not so unpleasant.

 

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The war ended, Katya returned to the capital, and the negotiations of the young people had already taken a very definite form — Katya seemed to give her consent. Still, she furnished it with a mass of such severe conditions that it even seemed that she wanted to refuse him correctly and not directly. The girl immediately demanded an obligatory wedding in the Orthodox Church.

Since the prince, of course, is a Buddhist, this is practically no obstacle for him — his religion is known to be highly tolerant, in Japan almost everyone is Shintoist and Buddhist at the same time, and it does not bother anyone except for lovers of statistics, who do not always understand why in Japan there are almost twice as many believers as inhabitants in general. But there is a bigger problem — what Orthodox priest would even agree to marry her to a Buddhist?

And this is not all the requirements — she declares that she will agree to become only the only wife of the prince, that is, he must give up such an almost obligatory option for the specialty of his position, as a harem, and become an object of ridicule of people of his surroundings. But if Katya thought that he himself would refuse to marry on such strict conditions, she miscalculated — he agrees to everything!

Now, she simply has no options because to refuse after such a thing is like admitting that she was just messing with him, and this is a loss of reputation at the very least. For consent, too, found someone to condemn her: Paustovsky writes that many of her friends shook their heads — say, I would not go for a yellow-skinned and narrow-eyed if he was even thrice a prince … However, they were the prince did not offer anything like that — so they were jealous.

 

Катерина Десницкая и принц Чакрабон в 1906 году
Katerina Desnitskaya and Prince Chakrabongse in 1906 / wikipedia.org

 

In 1906, it was time for the prince to return to his homeland. From my native Odesa, the couple sailed to Constantinople, where they were married — the priests there, as always, approached the wedding of a Buddhist with an Orthodox much more liberally. Before traveling to Siam, Katya even adopts a new name, Na Phitsanulok, to make herself a more acceptable figure to her father-in-law, King Chulalongkorn, and his spouses (the encyclopedia recalls at least four — how can they all like her?).

But among the uninformed royal entourage about this marriage, so ridiculous and terrible rumors were spread that the prince preferred to leave his wife in Singapore and go home alone to wonder if they would be allowed in at all and not executed at once. Fortunately, there were no atrocities, except that the returned prince was appointed to the post of the head of the military school disproportionate to his rank but was allowed into the country even with an unclear wife — after all, he is not the heir to the throne, let him freak out, if he were the heir — we would have clearly explained to him whom to marry…

There are plenty of such cases even in our time — when a family that understands a lot about itself is invaded through marriage by a representative of the lower classes, anything can happen. And not necessarily at the kings — the son of a middle-class businessman who married a saleswoman, too, should not be surprised at anything: the reaction can be frightening. Is there anything that can be done in such cases?

It is not very easy, but it is possible — and the clever Kyiv girl Katya makes reasonable and appropriate efforts to prove that now she is not Katya but the very real Na Phitsanulok. In the gymnasium, she studied French and German — here she not only easily added English, widespread in the then Siam, but also mastered Thai, which was not so simple for Europeans.

The royal family noticed her efforts and softened their attitude towards her, and when she also gave birth to the king’s first grandson, his grandfather, and all the grandmothers revealed and practically recognized the wife of his son as quite an average Thai. No worse than other noble ladies of the court. Anything is possible if you try hard enough!

If you believe Paustovsky, this story had a rather unexpected but bad and sad ending. According to him, after the king’s death, the elder brother reigned for a very short time — he died of some tropical disease, and Katya Desnitskaya suddenly became queen of Siam!

 

Катерина Десницкая, принц Чакрабон и их сын Чула
Katerina Desnitskaya, Prince Chakrabongse, and their son Chula / wikipedia.org

 

But the courtiers barely tolerated her existence, and when she introduced European innovations at court, such as electric lighting, they poisoned her by putting in her food ground glass from electric light bulbs into the smallest powder.

She died in terrible agony, and the inconsolable king put on her grave a touching monument — an elephant with a golden crown on his head of black marble. From time to time, Paustovsky remembered the beautiful girl, twirling in a waltz on the Kyiv skating rink, and sad about her sad and unusual fate.

Was it really like that? You know, not really — whether the writer was misled or whether he just gave free will to the imagination. It is pretty clear that the Siamese throne Prince Chakrabongse did not take the throne — I am surprised at modern journalists who sometimes unconditionally believe this story: it is effortless to check it!

It was not he who ascended the throne, but his elder brother Rama VI Vajiravudh, who safely ruled for 15 years, and everyone notes what valuable assistance in modernizing the army of Siam he provided his younger brother Chakrabongse, using for this purpose his military education received in Europe. By the way, it is worth noting that after his brother’s ascension to the throne, Prince Chakrabongse immediately received the title of heir, so if not the Queen of Siam, then the Crown Princess Katya really became.

But the end of this novel is unfortunate — Paustovsky would be upset. He was a great romantic; his first novel was even called «Romantics», and in his books, there is practically nothing about family scandals or, God forbid, adultery — he tried to remember something like that and could not.

And the Eastern lords have no great traditions of marital fidelity. This is not to mention Siam, now Thailand, where the king is so revered that a man who accidentally stepped on a banknote with the royal portrait is still considered a dangerous criminal and gets a sentence…

So Prince Chakrabongse allowed himself some romantic passion, even going to make his own great-niece Chavalit his second wife, but the Kyiv girl Katya could not become a Siamese court lady to such an extent that she did not consider it worthy of attention.

She demanded a divorce, and no matter how much her husband begged her, she did not change her mind and left Siam, taking her son with her. Chakrabongse was not against it — he himself had received a Western education and agreed that it would be suitable for the child. So the divorce, as you can see, was relatively peaceful, more in Western than Eastern terms.

Chakrabongse did not survive the divorce for long — they separated in 1919, and in 1920, he died of pneumonia. In Europe, Katya once again found personal happiness by marrying American Harry Stone. Her son Chula loved his stepfather, they established an excellent relationship, Chula even came up with a trusted pet nickname for him Hin — this word means «rock», as well as «stone» in English.

 

Принц Чула с женой Элизабет Хантер, 1936 год
Prince Chula and his wife Elizabeth Hunter, 1936 / wikipedia.org

 

Katya didn’t like it much in America, and her brother’s widow lived in Paris with her children — so she and her husband moved to Paris, where she lived most of her life. Chula studied in England, and in the end, he liked it so much that he stayed there, married an Englishwoman, and felt himself to be an Englishman, not an American, Russian, or Thai.

The war was a test for everyone, and this family was no exception. Katya and her husband temporarily moved to their son in England, returning to Paris after the war. And Chula himself had a somewhat unexpected problem. As I have already said, he felt himself to be a true Englishman; he wanted to fight for the country he considered his native country, but formal obstacles prevented him.

The fact is that during the war, Thailand was practically conquered by Japan, became its satellite, and was even officially at war with England. So, Chulu did not want to join the British army for a long time — on paper, he was a citizen of an enemy country. With great difficulty, he still managed to awaken in the military bureaucracy a reasonable principle, and he was taken into service in the Coast Guard — in general, also the army, but the enemy in the eyes of the enemy, someone so was calmer… After the war, Chula became a historian, writing, among others, a work on the history of his own dynasty.

Katya herself lived to the age of 73, died in Paris, and was buried in the famous Russian cemetery in the city of St. Geneviève de Bois. When I was there and suddenly stumbled upon her grave, a lot of things came to mind… I honestly must admit that I was thinking not only about the real Katya, whose fate, you must agree, turned out to be happier than in the novel (well, and thank God), but about Katya from the pages of the book I read at school — touching and not forgotten, despite the passing years.

«A military band came. Multicolored bulbs were lit. Gymnasium girls in fur coats rode around in a circle, swinging and hiding their hands in little muffs. Gymnasium students rode backward or “pistol” — sitting down on one leg and putting the other one far out. It was considered the ultimate chic. I envied them. I returned home flushed and tired… My older brother Borya, a student of a real school and an expert in mathematics, was courting Katyusha. He danced a waltz with her on skates. Even the Kapellmeister of the military orchestra, the red-haired Czech Kovarzhik, turned his face toward the rink to see this dance. On the red face of the Kapellmeister (we called him ‘kapeldud’), a sweet smile wandered».

Yes, I get it. It wasn’t really like that — but it was like that too. A good writer creates his own world, and it’s quite real. There is a real story — but there is also a girl from a Kyiv skating rink…

 


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