How a simple girl from Penza became the first lady of Angola

In the family photo, Tatyana Kukanova (far right) with her daughter, Isabelle, Africa's richest woman, her late husband, Sindika Dokolo, and grandson.

In the family photo, Tatyana Kukanova (far right) with her daughter, Isabelle, Africa’s richest woman, her late husband, Sindika Dokolo, and grandson.


In early July, the former president of Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country for 38 years – from 1979 to 2017, died in a Barcelona clinic. He was in many ways a typical African politician, but he had an unusual wife – Tatyana Kukanova, a resident of the USSR.

student marriage

Tatyana’s wonderful fairy tale began in 1966, when she moved from her native Penza to Baku, where she entered the Azerbaijan Institute of Oil and Chemistry, preparing to become a geologist. But to study the bowels of a lively girl (by the way, she was the champion of her city in chess) did not work out. At the university, Tanya met a bright African student. The guy was from Angola, at that time still a Portuguese colony.

Then, of course, no one knew who the black guy who walked with Tatiana along the Baku streets would become. The young people simply loved each other, so much so that they got married in the same 1966. The couple stayed in Azerbaijan, where their daughter Isabelle was born in 1973, and the certified oilman continued his studies, studying military affairs and sometimes visiting home, where he established contacts with the rebels.

Meanwhile, in 1974, the “carnation revolution” took place in Portugal, and immediately the colonial empire of Lisbon began to fall apart. During this turbulent time, dos Santos actively traveled around the world, representing the main pro-Soviet force in the country – the MPLA party. And soon he was elected a member of its Politburo. In 1975, the People’s Republic of Angola was proclaimed, in which the communists came to power, and our hero became the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

From Africa to England

The family moved to Angola. But Tatyana disliked her husband’s homeland – a difficult climate, all kinds of infections, total poverty. Moreover, a long civil war broke out. Dos Santos did not have enough time for a family, and his wife and her little daughter moved to Yugoslavia. But then the first president of the country, Agostinho Neto, died, and the lot fell to rule Angola dos Santos. The first lady, reluctantly, was about to return to her unloved Luanda. But in the Angolan political elite, and among the people, a murmur arose: how can the head of an African state have a white wife?

As a result, in 1980, Jose Eduardo and Tatiana filed an official divorce, especially since before that dos Santos had been seen on campaigns to the left, from one of which he had an illegitimate child. Subsequently, the president married twice more, had six children in these marriages, and even a few more worked up on the side, recognizing them as his own. But the Angolan leader did not think to forget his Russian wife and only daughter from her.

Tatyana did not want to return to the USSR. But she retained Soviet citizenship, after 1991 it flowed into Russian. Mom and daughter moved to London, where the ex-husband bought them apartments.

Isabelle received an excellent education at one of the best universities in the UK – King’s College. There she studied to be an electrical engineer. But the girl did not have to solder the circuits, higher matters were waiting for her. Even during her daughter’s studies, a lot of money flowed into her mother’s accounts from Angola, more than covering the amounts needed to live in Britain. Perhaps these were shadow incomes that dripped into dos Santos’ personal moneybox. Subsequently, some of them were transferred to the daughter’s name, amounting to her start-up capital.

Long-term Angolan ruler Jose Eduardo dos Santos contributed to his daughter's business in every possible way.

Long-term Angolan ruler Jose Eduardo dos Santos contributed to his daughter’s business in every possible way.


“African Princess”

The beautiful Isabelle, thanks to her father, immediately developed a vigorous activity in the business community of Angola. Having started working in a company that was engaged in the arrangement of the capital of Luanda, the president’s daughter began her own project in 1997 – she opened one of the first nightclubs and restaurants. And in 2001, with her participation, the company “Unitel” was created – the first and largest mobile operator in Angola. Naturally, all undertakings were given the go-ahead by the pope, who by that time had turned into a trivial dictator. Is it any wonder that the daughter’s business developed without a hitch!

Years flew by. From a former sweet girl, Isabelle turned into a well-groomed business woman, and by the age of forty she had also mastered the former metropolis of Angola – Portugal. She has invested a lot of money in this European country, having bought large stakes in a local telephone and Internet company, as well as in an investment bank.

In Angola itself, her aging father continued to help her as best he could: her daughter was engaged in diamond mining, building materials production, banks, private clinics and retail. The last thing dos Santos managed to do for Isabelle in his presidential post was to secure her election in 2016 as the chairman of the board of directors of the country’s oil and gas monopoly, the Sonangol Corporation, which provided more than 90% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

At one time, Isabelle was considered the richest woman on the Black Continent, her fortune was estimated at more than $ 2 billion. The lady was happily married to the Congolese magnate Sindiki Dokolo, from whom she had three children. The “African Princess” was accepted in high society, and she herself rotated among the stars of show business and the elite. It seemed like life was good! However, politics intervened.

Fall of the Queen

In 2017, João Lourenço became the new president of Angola, an ally of dos Santos and, as many believed at that time, a continuer of his course. True, after a few months of rule, Lawrence found out that the head of state did not intend to follow the policy of his predecessor in everything. Moreover, he abolished the principle of immunity for members of the dos Santos political clan.

As a result, already at the end of 2017, the new president fired Isabelle from her post at Sonangol, and then the authorities launched an investigation into the daughter of the ex-president, suspecting her of corruption and illegal enrichment. In 2019, a Luanda court seized the bank accounts of Isabelle, her husband and another business partner, accusing them of fraud through Sonangol and Sodiam (a state-owned diamond trading company). The accusations are more than serious, because budget losses are estimated at a billion dollars!

It is difficult to understand where Isabelle is now on the Forbes list. The lady herself moved to the Emirates, apparently hoping to wait out the storm in Dubai. And in 2020, a scandal known as the “Luanda Leaks” erupted, when 715 thousand documents became available to journalists, from which it followed that the “African Princess” actively used the high status of her father to run a successful business in Angola and Portugal, and after being fired from Sonangol, she withdrew $100 million to the UAE through controlled companies.

A strong shock for her was the death of her husband in 2020 while diving in Dubai. However, the Russian woman (she, like her mother, has retained our citizenship) does not give up and, perhaps, she will still show herself.

Tatyana Kukanova herself, who is now well over 70, is almost invisible against the background of her daughter. She co-owns Gibraltar-registered Trans Africa Investment Services, a diamond business with Isabelle.

Sometimes he flies to Dubai to visit his daughter and grandchildren. Shortly before the death of her ex-husband, she came to say goodbye to him in Barcelona.


Who else from our compatriots became the wives of foreign leaders

One of the most famous “presidential spouses” from Russia was Faina Vakhreva, who married Taiwanese President Jiang Jingguo. Jiang was the son of Chiang Kai-shek himself – the main opponent of Mao Zedong and the man who ruled Taiwan for 15 years. But before all these disagreements with the communists, Chiang sent his offspring to study and work in the USSR, where he met his wife, who later gave birth to four children. Vakhreva took the Chinese name Jiang Fanliang.

No less remarkable is the story of Anastasia Filatova, who married Yumzhagiin Tsedenbal, Secretary General of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Head of the Presidium of the Great People’s Khural of Mongolia. His marriage to Filatova was seen by many in Mongolia as binding a promising party functionary to the USSR, and the wife herself was called almost an agent of the Kremlin. However, now the role of Anastasia Filatova in the Asian country is being reviewed, and many say that the leader’s Russian wife was able to help many in the arrangement and development of Mongolia.

But Feodora Kornilova from Yakutia was married to the leader of a country closer to the European part of Russia – Hungary. The first secretary of the Hungarian Working People’s Party and Prime Minister Matthias Rakosi, removed from power because of the desire of the USSR to replace him with a softer politician, met his wife before the war. His wife was with him all his life and even went into exile in Kyrgyzstan, like a real Decembrist.

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