Prince Chakrabongse was born in 1883 into a noble Siamese family; his father, Chulalongkorn, was king of Siam from 1868 to 1910. Although Chakrabongse had many siblings - he was his father's 40th, and his mother's fourth, child - he was always a particular favourite of both of his parents. He occupied a relatively high position in that crowd of princes and princesses, for his mother was a queen; many of his half-siblings were borne to concubines, not queens.
Chulalongkorn, like his father Mongkut before him, was determined to "modernize" Siam. To this end he sent his own children, as well as bright young nobles and commoners, to be educated abroad; young Chakrabongse was sent to Britain.
Chakrabongse's father King Chulalongkorn made two visits to Europe, in 1897 and 1908, to meet his peers, European sovereigns, in person. It was a daring innovation, for traditionally the king was expected to stay in the kingdom, and preferably in the capital, to symbolically maintain the integrity of his kingdom. During his first visit he met the czar Nicholas II, who invited Chulalongkorn to send a son to be educated in Russia under his care; Chakrabongse, along with his companion and servant, Nai Pum, were chosen to go. They spent their teenage years in Russia.
In Russia, Chakrabongse fell in love with a ballerina, whom he married in Constantinople in 1906. According to the couple's son, Chula Chakrabongse, Chakrabongse never asked his parents' permission for the union because he was afraid - quite rightly - that they would refuse to allow him to marry a farang (foreigner). He simply returned to Siam with his wife, Ekatrina Desnitskaya, in tow. But Bangkok was a small city, particularly for a prince, and soon the city was buzzing with gossip about the new couple. The king and queen, reports Chula, were furious at the turn of events, and though the queen eventually relented enough to receive her white daughter-in-law, though Chulalongkorn never set eyes on her. However, when the couple's son, Chula Chakrabongse, was born in 1908, the king was apparently overjoyed that the baby looked completely Thai, with no trace of farang blood about him.
It was not just xenophobia that motivated the king to reject his favourite son's wife, however. Although the issue had not really arisen in the kingdom before, there was much confusion and consternation because no one was sure if an heir presumptive could be allowed to become king if he had a foreign bride.
In the event, these concerns were to come to naught, for Chakrabongse died in 1920 at the young age of 27.
Even with a scandalous foreign marriage, Chakrabongse was able to become a vital member of the Thai ruling circle. He was a member of the Privy Council to his father Chulalongkorn and his elder brother Vajiravudh, Rama V and Rama VI, respectively. He was Minister of War and Army Chief of Staff, and in this latter capacity was instrumental in building up the Siamese Air Force, which began in 1918 with only eight planes and pilots. In spite of these humble beginnings, he is memorialized in Thailand with the lofty title the "Father of Aviation", the Thai being fond of benevolent paternalistic imagery when it comes to their royals. In addition, Chakrabongse is widely credited with the "discovery" of the modern resort town Hua Hin during an expedition into the south of Thailand with a group of foreign guests.
Chula Chakrabongse's biography, The Twain Have Met; or An Eastern Prince Came West is an engaging read, and some of the details above come from that book. Also interesting is a book co-authored by Chula's own sister-in-law and his daughter, Katya and the Prince of Siam, which draws from Ekatrina's personal papers to paint a more intimate portrait of the woman.