Faina Epatcheva Vahaleva (
Born on May 15, 1916, in a mountainous area in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg), Vahaleva was first lady from 1978 to 1988, when Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), served as Taiwan's president.
Though becoming a member of what was then China's most powerful family at a young age, Vahaleva had never attracted as much media spotlight as other members of the family. In the period of more than half-a-century since she set foot in Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek's KMT government fled in 1949, the public's impression of the former first lady was ambivalent. The public knew that she was Chiang Ching-kuo's Russian wife and the mother of four children. But apart from that, her life and what kind of a person she was remained as mysterious as highly guarded intelligence secrets.
Unlike the lonesome, melancholy and feeble person that the public saw in her during her rare public appearances, young Vahaleva was extroverted, passionate and enjoyed outdoor activities. She was also an active and outspoken member of the Soviet Union's Communist Youth League.
Orphaned at young age, she was raised by her elder sister, Anna. After graduating from a training school for workers, she and her sister both landed jobs in the Ural Heavy Machinery Plant in 1932. In 1933, she became acquainted with Chiang Ching-kuo and they were married on March 15, 1935.
In October 1925, Chiang Ching-kuo went to study in Moscow at the age of 15. Chiang Kai-shek's countenance was believed to have been aimed at securing political interests and cementing ties with the Soviets. But as relations strained between Chiang Kai-shek and the Soviets, Chiang Ching-kuo's life in the communist country suffered.
The complexity of politics was beyond Vahaleva's control but she stood by Chiang Ching-kuo to endure the economic hardship, becoming his soul mate and only source of support in Russia. When the plant discharged Chiang Ching-kuo from his duties under the communists' order in September 1936, Vahaleva was, for six months in 1936 and 1937, the bread-winner of the family, supporting her husband and their son, Alan (
Following the Sian Incident (西安事變) of December 1936, Soviet leader Josef Stalin finally granted Chiang Ching-kuo his request to return to China.
Warmly received by Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Mayling (宋美齡), Vahaleva was sent with Chiang Ching-kuo back to his hometown of Hsikou, Chekiang, to live with Chiang Ching-kuo's mother, Mao Fu-mei (毛福梅) and to learn Chinese. But because she was surrounded by people who spoke the local Ningbo dialect, she just learned to speak the dialect instead of Mandarin. Notwithstanding the language and cultural barriers, Vahaleva made efforts to adapt herself to her new role and the strange environment. She got along well with Mao but was not spoiled by comfort. Instead of relying on servants and maids, she insisted on doing the cooking and housework herself like traditional Chinese housewives. Their neighbors often saw her doing the family laundry or going shopping by bike.
Throughout Chiang Ching-kuo's decades-long political career, it was only during their time in southern Kiangsi that Vahaleva played a somewhat active part in Chiang Ching-kuo's public life.