Year 1953. Saturday, February 7th. A Mercedes Benz stops at the Kremlin in Moscow. Leopoldo Bravo, a 33 years old man from San Juan, is about to meet with Stalin. He arrives with the mission of selling wool and meat. Forty-five minutes later, he leaves the place owning a country house and with the hope to marry a Romanian.
Year 2012. Monday, July 9th. A Russian with an apron “maneuvers” a sirloin rump steak on the grill. Dries his sweat with the forearm and asks me what cut I want. Another Russian offers me a glass of wine and a Ukrainian waitress brings empanadas.
It´s a sunny day and the trees hardly move. A few meters from the barbecue, a plaque on the wall records the strangeness: we are in Moscow celebrating The Independence Argentine Day in the same cottage that Stalin gave to Bravo during the winter of 1953. That history, more than our barbecue, deserves to be told.
In 1917, after the Russian Revolution and the arise of the Soviet Socialist Republics Union, Argentina breaks relations with this part of the world. Juan Domingo Perón assumes in 1945 and a year later keeps his promise to re-establish contact. He appoints Federico Cantoni -formerly, a “caudillo” from San Juan province in Argentina- Ambassador, and the mission starts. Cantoni was serving in Bucharest, Romania and had Leopoldo in his team, although he never recognized Cantoni as his real father.
Cantoni´s mission lasts until 1949, but Bravo stays in Moscow, first as Councilor of the Embassy and later as Chargé d’affaires. In 1953 Perón appointed him as Ambassador. On January 16th Leopoldo Bravo presents credentials at the Kremlin, and immediately he expresses his desire to meet Stalin, remote possibility at that time, when the mystery around the Soviet leader was in its highest level: never seen in public, he spent most of his days locked up in the Kremlin or in his country residence in Kuntsevo. He believed there was a conspiracy of doctors responsible for killing him and distrusted even of his shadow. However, the Minister of Soviet Foreign Affairs, Andréi Vishinski, transmits Bravo´s request to Stalin and -who knows why- the interview was granted and scheduled for February 7th in the morning. He was one of the few ambassadors to have had an interview with Joseph Stalin, as well as the last one.
When Bravo receives the news, he notifies the Argentinean Chancellery. Jerónimo Remorino, Minister of Foreign Affairs answers immediately: “Transmit Mr. Stalin the greetings of our Excellency, the President of the Argentina Nation, Juan Domingo Perón, and his wishes to achieve closer ties between the two countries in the economic field. (…) I avoid commenting on international politics”. Orders are accurate. Although the meeting was celebrated, Peron had his doubts: he is starting to ease his attacks to the United States and the meeting, during the Cold War, contributes little to friendship. (Russian historians assure that Stalin accepted the interview mainly to irritate Americans.)
Finally, February 7th arrived. Frosty morning in the winter of Moscow. The Conference, which remained in the mystery for decades, today can be reconstructed thanks to the notes of Vishinski, Bravo´s report and comments he made years later to different people.
We know that the Ambassador arrives at the Kremlin in a Mercedes Benz driven by a guy named Anatole. There he changes car and, together with Andréi Vishinski and his own interpreter, goes to meet Stalin. The Marshal, wearing a green suit and with the award of hero of Socialist Labor, shakes his hands. After formal flatteries (by the Ambassador, of course), the meeting starts.
Stalin, as stated in the report that Bravo left at the Embassy and which Abel Posse, Moscow Ambassador a decade later, retrieves in his article in La Nación Newspaper, listens to the interpreter and draws wolves, many tiny wolves. Every now and then he lifts his head and offers a friendly gesture, a word of complicity, a yes or a no. Afterwards they go to the business issue. Bravo presents a short list of products that Argentina could sell and buy, and Stalin agrees satisfied (there is no doubt about this: five months later the first trade agreement is signed in the history between USSR and a Latin American Country). Then Stalin starts with questions: “Right now, Argentina is not an independent country?” “The Argentina – Bravo answers – is an independent nation, but with many monopolies dominating the economy areas”. President Perón carried out a campaign for the nationalization of foreign companies and had already nationalized some of them. Without economic independence, there is no political sovereignty “. Then, believe it or not, they start talking about football. They flirt with the idea of organizing a match between both national teams and Stalin is particularly interested in taking Boca Juniors to play in Moscow.
The conversation and discussion are amazingly similar to the time being. Bravo says that our country has a national oil industry which lacks drilling equipment. In turn, he complains about the English exploitation of the meat market. Stalin responds with pedagogy: “Before, at the time of the Czar, the entire industry of Leningrad (Petersburg) and the entire Baltic fleet consumed English coal, but now the situation has changed because we threw the English out.” That is why they are upset and they are scolding us… The Anglo-Saxons like to exploit others. We have to stop this. “Each nation, no matter how small it is, wants to live his own life”…
Finally the Soviet leader suggests the Ambassador that Latin America should be a union of countries as the United States of South America, to which Bravo responds that, while there is a wish to do this, the Americans violate systematically this idea. Stalin retorts firmly: “this only shows the poverty of arguments of the United States, who have a lot of money and very little in the head.” “Normally the American Presidents do not like to think, they prefer to use the help of the “brain trust”, in particular, the cases of Roosevelt and Truman.
The general refers to Evita, died a few months earlier (in July 52): “Where does the great influence of Eva Perón in the social life of the country come from?” Because she is the head of State´s wife or due to her personal qualities? Both, says Bravo, which tries to lead the conversation towards Perón.
Already at the end, the Soviet leader asks the Ambassador how he feels in the city. “Quite well, says Bravo, but somewhat overwhelmed (Needless to clarify that, as a good diplomat, for sure he used another words). Stalin takes the post and orders his assistants to give him a dacha immediately. Complying with the Russian tradition of having a country house (they estimate that today nearly 30 million Russians have, in addition to their homes, a dacha on the outskirts of the city), Bravo accepts it with enthusiasm, and that dacha is precisely this green house where we arrived 59 years later to celebrate the independence day. Again is July 9th. It is a sunny day. And again is a Peron’s day.
I bite an empanada. My hands get dirty with its grease and I ask for a napkin. Cars are hardly heard. Here, a kind of a private/public district stands today: it is part of the city but with police officers guarding the entrance. You could say that Argentina’s Embassy has its home in a gated community in Moscow, and among its neighbors we find Roman Abramovich (Chelsea owner), or the family of President Vladimir Putin. According to Russia today, their homes are not made of wood but monumental modern mansions. The only original building, I don´t know whether because of wealth or lack, it´s our dachita.
A country house is nothing but a place outside the own place, that´s the grace. To leave in Moscow without leaving in Moscow… And at the same time be in Argentina, of course, because the Dacha – as the Embassy – is a virtual homeland.
The first thing I see, after greeting two kind Russian ladies of rough Spanish, is a half rusty red rocker. I doubt if it has been used in the past twenty years. Many lush trees. An Argentine flag without flaming, a horrible white tent for events, and finally the house. It is made of logs and, although it seems somewhat rickety, it has already more than 100 years standing (it was built in 1901). The green paint is intact but corroded by time, as old painted. The color, I think, is the same that Bravo saw the first time he went in, that winter in the 1950s. How would it been to go in here in 1953? Having been born in a totally sunny San Juan province and ending up in the suburbs of Moscow due to a gift from Stalin, probably proud and freeze to death, seeing all white and thinking in a remote Romanian girlfriend… The rocker was already there? Or probably it was a bad taste whim of the daughter of some later Ambassador?
I get into the Dacha. Really, I don´t notice the extraordinary at first. Then I pass to the living room and see Stalin´s bronze bust on a chest. His uniform looks neat with two hanging medals. With a vague look as addressed to a crowd. Next to him, dressed in white clay, Peron´s bust, with a jacket, shirt and tie. Both are smiling, but in a different way; Perón, with his mouth open, showing joy. Stalin instead just outlines his restrained smile, in the only way the “Generalissimo” could do it. His smiling charisma was different to Perón´s one, who was much more vulgar and gesturing. No, his, was a kindly, almost gentle charisma. However, on the other side of the same coin, the paranoid guy who gave the order to shoot men like ants. He couldn´t been asked neither the time. The World called – and still calls him – Stalin, the name he invented for himself and which means, in Russian, “made of steel”. Now nobody believes any more in his good old man kindness and his victims – almost always Russians – still appear, even several decades after dead… however his bust in the Argentinean Dacha, made of bronze not of steel, remains smiling and tender, more tender than in any Russian monument.
The property itself, although it is valued in more than 25 million euros, is not luxurious: just a wire fence, with more or less five thousand square meters of land, and the wooden House built in the middle. A plaque says: “Dacha ceded in honor to the Russian-Argentinean friendship during the Governments of Prime José Stalin and President Juan D. Perón.” “Represented by Ambassador Leopoldo Bravo”… What the bronze don´t tells about is the real ending of the meeting.
Again 1953. That icy morning in Moscow. Self-confident, Leopoldo Bravo of 33 years old tries to explain what does “peronism” mean, which until now is an inexplicable anathema. The Russian leader listens thoughtful. They exchange a few last words of courtesy and say goodbye. Stalin recommends Bravo to travel to Georgia and encouraged him to visit the Soviet Union. About “peronism” he concludes: “If I understand correctly, you would be capitalists, but not so much.” But also Socialist, although almost nothing. You are elected by votes, but do not believe in bourgeois democracy… “.” Bravo says yes, that it is exactly like that, and already finishing the meeting he gives him a letter with an unusual request. It says: “I am writing to your Excellency, the Generalissimo Stalin, as a friend of Argentina and Romania, asking you to help Margarita Ioana Stamatiad, student at the Philological Faculty of the University of Bucharest (Romania), to obtain the permission to travel to Moscow because I want to marry her…” I will be grateful to your Excellency during all my lifetime for your kind help. Signs “Leopoldo Bravo”. Really, the girl gets her permission thanks to Stalin, but Bravo, politician of race, never marries her.
The following day, the Ambassador sends a report to the Foreign Ministry telling what had happened. The telegram concludes saying: “Generalissimo Stalin made a very good impression on me. He enjoys good health and expresses himself in an agile, enjoyable and pleasant way during conversation”. Less than a month later, on March 5, 1953, Iósif Stalin died at ten to ten at night.
1. “Eternos misterios del peronismo”, Abel Posse, diario La Nación.
2. Algunos de estos datos, recuperados de medios de la época, los refiere Ernesto Castrillón en la nota: “Memoria: entrevista con Stalin”, del diario La Nación. Vale la pena leerla en su totalidad.
3. Los archivos oficiales de la conversación entre Stalin y Bravo los reveló hace unos años el medio ruso Nezavisimaia Gazeta.
4. El informe que envía Bravo al Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores se encuentra íntegro en el archivo de la Cancillería Nacional.
Otras fuentes utilizadas:
“Rusia-America Latina: diplomacia y diplomáticos. Representante de Perón es recibido por Stalin”, La Voz de Rusia.
“El caudillo en la intimidad”, Juan Carlos Bataller, San Juan al Mundo
“Rusia pide a la Argetina que devuelva la casa de campo que le regaló Stalin”, Silvia Naishtat, diario Clarín.
“En la dacha de Stalin”, Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, diario La Nación.
“Mi cumpleaños 38 en Moscú”, Ursulina Cantoni, blog Federico Cantoni, hacedor del San Juan del Siglo XX.
Text: Joaquín Sánchez Mariño
Video: Expreso a Oriente
Photos: Joaquín Sánchez Mariño