Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Strangely Funny Russian Genius - Daniil Kharms

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.

Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer.

He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously. I believe he knew he was funny and tried to be funny in his work, but I can’t find a single instance of him using the word “funny” in any of his writings, except at some distance from its straightforward meaning. In his personal notebooks, published for the first time in English in 2013, he never exults in how funny he has been or boasts that a witticism he said or wrote had ’em rolling in the aisles. For an American humorist or comedy writer such diffidence would be out of character, if not unheard of.

Kharms’s life gave him a lot not to be jolly about. He was born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in St. Petersburg in 1905. Formerly his father had been one of many young revolutionaries plotting against the life of Tsar Alexander III, a pastime that got him imprisoned for four years and then sent to a labor camp on Sakhalin Island for another eight. Later, Ivan Yuvachov became a Soviet in good standing and head of accounting at a power station. Kharms’s mother, Nadezhda Kolyubakina, was from an aristocratic background and a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute for Noble Girls.

Kharms offered a number of stories about his birth, such as that he was pushed back in after he came out, or that he hatched from caviar. Hunger to the point of starvation recurred in his youth, as he moved among relatives during World War I, and in his twenties and thirties in Leningrad when his notebooks record periods of going without food for days. He often got kicked out of things: from the city’s preparatory-level Peterschule at sixteen, from a college of engineering at twenty, and from the Leningrad Union of Poets at twenty-three.

He took the name Kharms when he was nineteen and he wrote under it for the rest of his life. A connection may have existed between it and the English words “charm” and “harm,” both evoking his interest in magic. It is pronounced with the same hard, throaty h that enlivens the Russian pronunciation of names like Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. At that point his life was more than halfway over. The next year he met Alexander Vvedensky, Leonid Lipavsky, Yakov Druskin, and Andrei Oleinikov, his future literary collaborators and friends. Kharms wrote hard-to-categorize plays, published two poems (the only works of his for adults to come out in his lifetime), and with Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabalotsky, and others formed a movement called OBERIU, an abbreviation made from letters in the words “Union for Real Art.” Public performances by OBERIU participants angered audiences to near riot and received threateningly negative reviews.

Much of Kharms’s published writing in his lifetime appeared in the children’s magazines Ezh (Hedgehog) and Chizh (Siskin). Russians of the later Soviet era knew him only as a writer for children, an age group he professed to despise, though his poems and stories for them have become wild classics of Russian literature. In 1931 he was arrested for putting anti-Soviet ideas in his children’s writing. He spent part of his brief sentence of exile in Kursk with Vvedensky, who was also exiled there. Esther Rusakova, his first wife, to whom he had been married in the late 1920s, received a five-year Gulag sentence in 1936 and later died in prison. His friend Oleinikov was shot in 1937. In 1939 Kharms was diagnosed as schizophrenic and given an exemption from military service. In August 1941 he was arrested and charged with spreading panic and anti-Soviet propaganda. Held in a psychiatric prison hospital in Leningrad during the first and hardest winter of the German blockade, he starved to death on February 2, 1942, at the age of thirty-six. In 1956 he was rehabilitated, but his poems, prose pieces, and plays did not begin to be published in Russia until the late 1980s.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

'The Librarian': Philosophical parable or fascist nostalgia?

Mikhail Elizarov won the prestigious Russian Booker Prize in 2008 with his story of war-like “libraries” and their battles over copies of old novels that give their readers magical powers. The tale is studded with bayonets, broken glass, butchers’ cleavers, spiked clubs, axes, hammers and flails. This is not the sedate ride a reader might expect from a novel called “The Librarian”, which centers on the works of Dmitry Gromov, an invented, second-rate, Soviet author. Translator Andrew Bromfield has calmly waded through the gore to bring us the “Battle of Neverbino” or compound neologisms like “Yeltsinhater”.

Before reaching the main narrative, Elizarov records the lives of early “librarians” including Yelizaveta Mokhova, whose readings from “The Book of Strength” turn a ward full of comatose old women into a bloodthirsty army. These tales form a Silmarillion-style prehistory in Elizarov’s mythopoeic universe and there are moments of fleet-footed humor, like the image of a bedridden eighty-year-old, temporarily revitalized, skipping “lightly over lockers and beds, like a goat.”

The 2008 award divided the Booker committee. Alexander Kabakov resigned from the committee in protest at the decision to give the prize to this “worthless, fascist trash” while the jury leader, Evgeny Sidorov felt that what matters is how far an author “succeeds in traveling to the depths of man’s soul…” The controversy rested on the question of how Elizarov’s novel dealt with the past. Roman Arbitman, writing for Profile Magazine, described it as a work “imbued with some kind of hysterical nostalgia for a Soviet Atlantis that has sunk into oblivion.”

Elizarov admits that he remembers his Soviet childhood “with great warmth” and is interested in exploring values that have been lost under the capitalist system, but his ideas are more complex than the debate suggests. “The Librarian” starts with a quotation from Platonov’s dystopian satire “The Foundation Pit” and Elizarov’s cartoon violence obscures a philosophical parable, exploring the power of ideas.

When the narrator, Alexei Vyazintsev, reads Gromov’s novel known as “The Book of Memory”, it conjures up for him “an entirely invented childhood,” a montage of sleigh rides and snowball fights, May Day holidays, Young Pioneer camps and the smell of new textbooks. Flowers radiate in all directions from a “white as sugar” statue of Lenin, who “towered up on his granite pedestal.” The crucial thing about this idyll is that it is fictional; Alexei is prepared to fight for his ideas, but that does not make them true.

Powerful books are central literary devices in numerous novels and Russian authors have been pioneers in this metafictional realm. Bulgakov’s “Master” rewrites the story of Christ, and Nabokov’s work is full of invented books and authors, like the poet John Shade in “Pale Fire”. Eccentric cults are another common feature. Yuri Mamleyev’s grotesque and satirical “Sublimes”, translated into English last year, centers on a strange satanic group living in a village near Moscow, obsessively seeking divine truth through extreme violent or sexual practices. Vladimir Sorokin’s murderous Oprichniki or the 23,000 Children of Light, awakened by a meteorite in his bizarre “Ice Trilogy”, inhabit postmodern, post-Soviet satires that parallel Elizarov’s fantasies.

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Saturday, 18 April 2015

Modigliani and the Russian beauty Anna Akhmatova: the affair that changed him

At six feet tall, raven-haired and ravishingly beautiful, 21-year-old Anna Akhmatova proved something of a sensation when she arrived in Paris on the arm of her husband in 1910 – people would turn to look at her in the street. The couple were on their honeymoon, and, being poets of some repute in their native Russia, headed straight for Montparnasse, then the favoured haunt of the Parisian avant garde. Here they mingled with the penniless painters, sculptors, poets and composers who had moved to the area from the increasingly chichi Montmartre, in search of cheap rent, cheap cafés and run-down buildings that might serve as studios.
One such artist was the 25-year-old Amedeo Modigliani, who had arrived from Italy four years before. With an aristocratic Roman nose, a strong jaw and a mop of jet-black hair, he enchanted Anna, and the two became inseparable. “This was a meeting of hearts and minds,” says Richard Nathanson, who has helped put together an exhibition of Modigliani’s drawings at London’s Estorick Collection, which opens this week. Modigliani drew her 16 times, according to Nathanson, but many works have been lost in the intervening years; three of the 28 drawings in the show are of Akhmatova. “Once you look at the connection [between them], you see it everywhere in his paintings.”
Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in 1889, Akhmatova belonged to an upper-class family of landowners. She grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), a fashionable area on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg and near one of the royal summer residences. It was here that she met her husband, Nikolai Gumilev, while shopping in a large department store. He pursued her for years, even attempting suicide in the name of unrequited love (although, Nathanson says, Gumilev had tired of Akhmatova by the time he finally married her).
In 1906, when Modigliani moved to Paris, Akhmatova was making a name for herself in Saint Petersburg, reciting her works in the infamous literati hang-out known as the Stray Dog Café. Her father insisted she wrote under a pseudonym so as not to disgrace the family name, and she chose Akhmatova, after a Tartar ancestor. Love was her favourite subject, and her voice intoxicated readers from the start. The writer Kornei Chukovsky said that her first book, titled Evening, “accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love”.
Poetry united Akhmatova and Modigliani. While Akhmatova’s new husband caught up with old friends in Paris, Akhmatova took to visiting Modigliani. By day they would take walks or sit in the park. Years later she wrote in her memoirs, “Whenever it rained (it often rained in Paris) Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain. We would jointly recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart, and we were glad we shared the same interests.”
They must have made a funny pair – he almost a foot shorter than her, in a three-piece suit of corduroy that had a distinctly raffish air; she in her Belle Epoque finery. She compared him to the Greek demi-god Antinous, who was the Emperor Hadrian’s lover and impossibly beautiful. “In his eyes was a golden gleam,” she said. “He was unlike anyone in the world.”
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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke: Letters and love poems

During the early years of World War I and the following Bolshevik Revolution, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva both lived in Moscow, moving in the same literary circles without catching each other’s attention. 

Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 to live in Prague with her exiled husband, Sergei Efron, who had escaped the revolution several years earlier. Later that year, Pasternak read her poetry collection “Versts” and immediately wrote her a letter expressing his deep admiration for her work. This was the spark for an intense romantic relationship expressed through letters brimming with poetry, love, doubt and jealousy.

The two young poets quickly discovered how much they had in common. Aside from their similar ages and upbringing in Moscow, they both had a professor father and a pianist mother. They had also both visited Germany on several occasions and shared a love of German literature.

In spring 1926 Boris Pasternak was going through a period of deep artistic dissatisfaction and even considered abandoning literature. It was thanks to Tsvetaeva’s support and understanding that he was able to finish his major poem “The Year 1905.” Then two important events occurred – on the same day – that filled him with a new hope and energy. The first was reading Tsvetaeva’s “Poem of the End,” in which he recognized himself. In response he wrote, “You are mine and have always been mine; all my life is – you.” The second event was a letter he received from his father with the news that Rilke had read some of his poems in a Paris journal, which stunned and delighted him.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s name had appeared repeatedly in the letters that Pasternak and Tsvetaeva exchanged from 1922-1925, and in the late spring of 1926 the Bohemian-Austrian poet added his voice to their correspondence.

Rilke sent Pasternak his “Sonnets to Orpheus” and “Duino Elegies,” and in his warm letter of thanks, Pasternak mentioned Tsvetaeva, speaking of her as a major poet with a great love of Rilke’s work. At Pasternak’s request, Rilke sent Tsvetaeva copies of his new books; she responded with the words, “You are the very incarnation of poetry.” Rilke was dying of leukemia in a health spa in Val-Mont, Switzerland, so the correspondence between the three poets was brief but intense. Each poet was facing their own form of desolation – exile, imminent death, alienation – and their letters to each other were a way of escaping their solitude and retreating into the comforting world of lyricism and passion.

Tsvetaeva and Pasternak were eager to visit Rilke in Switzerland, but the meeting did not take place before Rilke died on Dec. 29, 1926. Tsvetaeva and Pasternak continued writing to each other for another nine years, but their letters declined in intensity and their romance faded – particularly after she learned that he had left his wife for another woman.

The two poets did finally meet in 1935, when Stalin forced Pasternak to attend the Soviet-inspired “International Writers Congress in Defense of Culture” in Paris. Pasternak was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when he arrived for the event and his meeting with Tsvetaeva was a damp squib. Despite their extraordinary literary intimacy over so many years, they were unable to find a common language. When Tsvetaeva asked about the possibility of returning to Russia, Pasternak replied, “You’ll get to love the collective farms” – a comment laden with sarcasm that went over her head.

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Friday, 10 April 2015

The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina

I. The First Sentence
Often quoted but rarely understood, the first sentence of Anna Karenina—“All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—offers a paradoxical insight into what is truly important in human lives. What exactly does this sentence mean?
In War and Peace and in a variant of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy quotes a French proverb: “Happy people have no history.” Where there are dramatic events, where there is material for an interesting story, there is unhappiness. The old curse—“May you live in interesting times!”—suggests that the more narratable a life is, the worse it is.
With happy lives and happy families, there is no drama to relate. What are you going to say: They woke up, breakfasted, didn’t quarrel, went to work, dined pleasantly, and didn’t quarrel again?
Happy families resemble each other because there is no story to tell about them. But unhappy families all have stories, and each story is different.
II. Love and Fate
We tend to think that true life is lived at times of high drama. When Anna Karenina reads a novel on the train, she wants to live the exciting incidents described. Both high literature and popular culture foster the delusion that ordinary, prosaic happiness represents something insufferably bourgeois, a suspension of real living. Forms as different as romantic drama, adventure stories, and tragedies suggest that life is truly lived only in moments of great intensity.
Tolstoy thought just the opposite.
The dramatic understanding of life that Tolstoy rejected has, if anything, grown still more powerful. Today very few people question that “true love” is the grand and glorious feeling that consumes one’s very being, as in Romeo and Juliet and countless debased imitations. By contrast, Tolstoy wants us to recognize that romantic love is but one kind of love. It is an ideology of love, in fact, but we do not recognize it as one. InAnna Karenina, Kitty at first prefers the dashing and romantic Vronsky to the kind and staid Levin because she has assumed, as most of us do, that she should marry the one she “loves”; and she has been told that “love” is romantic rather than prosaic. She does not yet recognize that what she feels for Levin is also a form of love, and that she has a real choice. Which love does she really want?
Over time Kitty comes to recognize that in addition to romantic love there is alsointimate love. Only intimate love is compatible with a family. Tolstoy wants his readers to be aware that this choice exists for them as well.
The myth embodied in great romances tells us that love envelops our whole being. Romantic love presses upon us with irresistible intensity. It transcends all ordinary prosaic conditions and lifts lovers to a realm of resplendent meaning. All-consuming, it allows no room for anything else. Lovers love, not so much each other, but love itself.
What is more, according to this ideology, we do not choose such love. It befalls us. We “fall in love,” we do not jump in love. Such love is a “passion,” not an action. It is something we suffer, an idea prefigured in medieval literature by love potion and in modern thought by unconscious forces overwhelming the will.
For this reason, romantic love feels like fate, and an ideology of amoral fatalism often accompanies it. Lovers live in a realm beyond good and evil. After all, good and evil depend on choice, and where fate governs, choice is out of the question. No matter how much pain the lovers cause, one cannot condemn them. Adultery becomes as noble as revolution, and only cramped moralists worry about the pain caused the betrayed spouse or abandoned children.
That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.
Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit.
Perhaps such readers simply presume that no great writer would take the side of all those shallow moralists. Would a genius endorse what we dismiss as bourgeois banality? But in an unexpected way, that is what Tolstoy does. He shows with unprecedented psychological subtlety the shallowness of the romantic view.
Anna’s story illustrates the dangers of romantic thinking. As she gives herself to her affair, she tells herself that she had no choice, but her loss of will is willed. Returning by train to her husband in St. Petersburg with Vronsky in pursuit, she experiences a sort of delirium:
She was constantly beset by moments of doubt as to whether the car was going forward or back or standing still altogether. Was it Annushka beside her or a stranger? “What is this on the arm, a fur or a beast? And is this me here? Am I myself or someone else?” She was terrified of surrendering to this oblivion. But something was drawing her into it, and she could surrender or resist at will (Part I, chapter 29).
The relativism of motion she experiences is a precise analogue to the delirious moral relativism she is falling into. Though she will later insist she could not have done otherwise, Tolstoy tells us that “she could surrender or resist at will.” Her fatalism is a choice.
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Thursday, 9 April 2015

Russian Art Movement and Magazine Mir iskusstva - Мир иску́сства

World of Art (Mir iskusstva in Russian) was an artistic movement inspired (and embodied) by an art magazine which served as its manifesto de facto, which was a major influence on the Russians who helped revolutionize European art during the first decade of the 20th century. Few Westerner/Europeans actually saw issues of the magazine itself and so the movement itself is somewhat of a mystery is Westerners and Europeans.

The artistic group was founded in 1898 by a group of students that included Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, Léon Bakst, Eugene Lansere.

The first public showing of the group was at the Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists in the Stieglitz Museum of Applied Arts in Saint-Petersburg.

In 1899 they founded the magazine in St. Petersburg by Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, and Sergei Diaghilev (the Chief Editor). They aimed at assailing low artistic standards of the obsolescent Peredvizhniki school and promoting artistic individualism and other principles of Art Nouveau. The theoretical declarations of the art movements were stated in the Dyagilev's articles "Difficult Questions", "Our Imaginary Degradation", "Permanent Struggle", "In search of the Beauty", "The fundamentals of the artistic appreciation" published in the N1/2 and N3/4 of the new journal.

The most active members of the World of Art were Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Eugene Lansere, and Konstantin Somov. Exhibitions organized by the World of Art attracted many illustrious painters from Russia and abroad, notably Mikhail Vrubel, Mikhail Nesterov, and Isaac Levitan.

The group went through an initial exhibition phase (modelled off the first impressionist exhibitions) from 1898 to 1904 during which time they organized six exhibitions: 1899 (International), 1900, 1901 (At the Imperial Academy of Arts, Saint Petersburg), 1902 (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), 1903, 1906 (Saint Petersburg). The sixth exhibition was seen as a Dyagilev's attempt to prevent the separation from the Moscow mebers of the group who organized a separate "Exhibition of 36 artists" (1901) and later "The Union of Russian Artists" group (from 1903).

In 1909, many of the members of the World of Art movement also contributed to the Ballets Russes Company operating in Paris.

In 1904-1910, Mir Iskusstva as a separate artistic group did not exist. Its place was inherited by the Union of Russian Artists which continued officially until 1910 and unofficially until 1924. The Union included painters (Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin, Boris Kustodiev, Zinaida Serebriakova), illustrators (Ivan Bilibin, Konstantin Somov), restorators (Igor Grabar), and scenic designers (Nicholas Roerich, Serge Sudeikin).

In 1910 Benois published a critical article in the magazine "Rech'" about the Union of Russian Artists. Mir Iskusstva was recreated. The new chairmen became Nicholas Roerich. The group took new members including Nathan Altman, Vladimir Tatlin, Martiros Saryan. Some said that the inclusion of the Russian avant-garde painters demonstrated that the group became an exhibition organization rather than an art movement. In 1917 the chairmen of the group became Ivan Bilibin. The same year most members of Jack of Diamonds enter the group.

The group organazied numerous exhibitions: 1911, 1912, 1913, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1922 Saint-Petersburg, Moscow). The last exhibition of Mir Iskusstva was organized in Paris in 1927. Some members of the group entered the Zhar-Tsvet (Moscow, organized in 1924) and Four Arts (Moscow-Leningrad organized in 1925) artistic movements.

Like the English pre-Raphaelites before them, Benois and his friends were disgusted with anti-aesthetic nature of modern industrial society and sought to consolidate all Neo-Romantic Russian artists under the auspices of fighting Positivism in art.

Like the Romantics before them, the World of Art group promoted understanding and conservation of the art of previous epochs, particularly traditional folk art and the 18th-century rococo. Antoine Watteau was probably the single artist whom they admired the most. ...

The Art History Archive

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Nijinsky: a Life

A few tantalising seconds of jerky black-and-white footage are all that survive as cinematic evidence of Vaslav Nijinsky’s balletic genius. But in her enthralling biography, Nijinsky, Lucy Moore helps redress the deficiency by providing an atmospheric lens through which the greatest ballet dancer of all time comes once again to life. Through Nijinsky’s own diary, as well as many other contemporary sources, Moore uses her meticulous and intelligent research to tell the moving story of a professional life that began in triumph and ended in desperate sadness.
With a circlet of poppies and cornflowers on his five-year-old head, Nijinsky made his public debut in a Cossack folk dance in 1894. The three Nijinsky children were abandoned at an early age by their father and brought up by their impoverished, self-sacrificing mother, who remained single-mindedly ambitious for her gifted younger son. In 1899, she was rewarded when Vaslav was offered a coveted place at St Petersburg’s Imperial Theatre School, the training ground for the future stars of St Petersburg’s celebrated Mariinsky Theatre.
Sergei Diaghilev first saw Nijinsky dance in 1907. Diaghilev was Russia’s dominant promoter of the arts, an arresting “magnificent bear” of a man, whose physical presence and “a faint whiff of the violet bonbons he habitually chewed” fills this book. Gauche, monosyllabic and predominantly heterosexual, the 18-year-old Nijinsky was innocent of the intense atmosphere of sexual liberation that governed Diaghilev’s hedonistic lifestyle.
But on stage Nijinsky’s unequalled grace, beauty and sensuality was accentuated by his apparent ability to transcend the physical and float through the air as if he had learnt to fly. “You have to go up and then pause a little up there,” he explained with disarming simplicity.
Under Diaghilev’s direction, an exceptional company of radical artists, who together embodied the spirit of modernism, arrived in Paris in 1909 as members of the new Ballets Russes, among them the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Within a few months, accompanied by Bronia, his adored dancer sister, Nijinsky, trembling “like an aspen leaf” as he later recalled, had signed a contract as the new company’s leading dancer. Largely motivated by professional ambition, he had also succumbed to Diaghilev’s irresistible charm and become his patron’s lover.
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