Russia: Politics and History

7 july 2010

The Ruinous Consequences of History Politics for the Country and Its Relations with Neighbors

Alexei Miller – leading researcher at the Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and is a professor at the Central European University in Budapest. He holds a doctorate in History.

Resume: The ruinous consequences of history politics in Russia may be much tougher than in other countries: the weaker pluralism and democracy, the fewer opportunities society and the guild of historians have to resist history politics. If interference of politics in history continues to develop at such a fast rate and in the same vein as in the past two or three years, Russia will suffer a major setback.

The full version of this article was published in Russian in the Pro et Contra journal, Vol. 12, 2009, No. 3-4.

Scientists use a variety of terms to describe the link between professional historiography and collective memory with politics. Each country would use its specific set of terms; in Russia, we mostly use the phrases ‘politicization of history’ and ‘politics of memory.’ The term ‘history politics’ is a recent addition that is becoming increasingly popular nowadays. This article attempts to pin down the difference in these notions and addresses the situation in Russia.

DEFINING THE NOTIONS

Politicization of history is inevitable and persistent. It starts at the individual level: any historian doing research finds himself conditioned – to a greater or lesser extent – by the contemporary situation, his own political views, and national, religious and social identification. In a certain sense, this association is the source of constant development and rewriting of history, because new times and situations, along with personal experience, encourage historians to seek new insights. Politicization of history also involves groups of historians who are similarly influenced by political factors. Consider, for example, the context of national historiographies, which has been decisive for historians from the time of Leopold von Ranke and which has not lost significance today. We often say that certain groups of historians have political preferences that determine their methodological approaches, hence such terms as ‘liberal historians,’ ‘conservative historians,’ ‘Marxist historians,’ etc.

The acknowledgement of the fact that incumbent circumstances and political preferences affect historians is the starting point for working out mechanisms to reduce this influence – through reflection and self-control, lucid presentation of alternative points of view and regard for professional criticism.

History cannot claim the status of an objective science or the ability to ascertain the truth. But it is a norm in history to seek objectivity, which implies discussing different opinions. The historical professional norm suggests the use of verifiable argument that is open for check of its source and criticism of the author’s premises and values.

Politicization of history is more than just an impact of the political environment on professional historians. It is also seen in the public’s habit to look for historians’ opinions on current issues in history readings. Some history authors seem eager to indulge the readers on this account, even though this does not bode well for their reputation.

Politicization of history is also manifest in the use of “historical” arguments by politicians in their attempts to sound convincing – the practice that is also persistent and is unlikely to be ever eradicated. At the same time, the use of historical arguments in democratic societies has long made politicians an easy target for criticism, both from their political opponents and professional historians.

Politics of memory deals with public practices and norms related to the regulation of collective memory. It involves commemoration measures (building monuments and museums, celebrating – nationwide or locally – anniversaries of significant events of the past, etc.), highlighting certain episodes in history while ignoring or marginalizing others, and paying pensions to the veterans of certain events while denying such payments to veterans of other events.

The government directly influences the politics of memory and historical research by regulating access to archives, setting standards of historical education (for example, the minimal set of topics and facts a student is supposed to know), and practicing priority funding of scientific research and publications on history problems. Politics of memory is as inevitable as politicization of history: there is no society, not even among the tribal ones, that would not regulate this sphere of public life. In democratic societies, pluralism in the politics of memory is sustained owing to the activity of parliamentary opposition and independent public and professional associations, which defend ideas that differ from those of the ruling party.

The politics of memory is inseparably linked with the ‘politics of forgetting,’ which tends to overlook certain events of recent history that society regards as particularly painful and contentious. Such “supplanting” forgetfulness was demonstrated by Germany’s attitude towards the Nazi past during the first 15 to 20 years after World War II and France’s attitude to collaborationism under the Vichy government. It was clearly seen in the public opinion of the civil war in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime. Over time, such forgetfulness tends to be replaced by an increased interest of historians and society in forgotten topics.

Forgetfulness can be “denying” when the key public forces avoid admitting or discussing certain shameful or criminal events of the past. Japan presents a graphic example as it avoids talking about the crimes committed by the Japanese during World War II; similarly, modern Russia mostly keeps silent on the conduct of Soviet soldiers in occupied Germany.

There is also “understanding” forgetfulness, which shifts public attention away from an event or process after a discussion of responsibility. Modern Germany is aware of its Nazi past, and neither denies it nor suppresses its memory; and since it admits responsibility, it may address the formerly taboo topic of the hardships German civilians suffered during and after World War II.

The politics of memory can be open for influence and dialogue between various public quarters and historians, and it can be productive in healing the wounds of the past and overcoming the internal or ethnic conflicts. Yet it can also generate new conflicts and create distorted images of the past.

Politicization of history and collective memory have long become the subject of research. Today we are witnessing a vigorous growth of the politics of memory and politicization of history. Furthermore, new processes are taking place which clearly need a scrupulous analysis and, conceivably, a special term to describe them. I suggest the term ‘history politics’ which, for lack of a better phrase, I borrowed from Polish historians. I believe this term has an important advantage: it correctly defines the relationship between politics that functions as the subject, and history that acts as a descriptive attribute. The term underlines that this is clearly a political phenomenon which should be studied – first and foremost – as part of politics. This sets it apart from ‘politicization of history’ and ‘politics of memory’ as defined above.

THE ORIGINS OF HISTORY POLITICS

In 2004, a group of Polish historians declared that the country needed to work out and pursue its own version of politics with regard to history. The term they used – polityka historyczna – was borrowed from the German Geschichtspolitik, which appeared in the early 1980s. At that time, the newly elected Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Party, who had a degree in History, used history issues to cement his political success. He appointed professional historian Michael StЯrmer his political advisor and called for making a “moral-political” turn. An important element of this turn was to assert a positive character of German patriotism. Kohl believed it should not be exclusively based on the recognition of Germany’s guilt for the crimes of the Third Reich. This suggested an adjustment of the treatment of Germany’s responsibility for the Nazi crimes, which had been adopted by the Social Democrats while they were in office in the 1960s through the 1970s.

Historians Ernst Nolte, Michael StЯrmer and their associates who promoted this idea in 1986-1987, initiated the famous Historikerstreit, a dispute between historians over the reasons behind the emergence of Nazism and the measure of its responsibility for World War II. In the course of the dispute, Kohl and his allies from among German historians encountered a tough enough rebuff that halted Geschichtspolitik before it was able to gain momentum. A majority of German historians took a tough stance against Nolte as they took his publications as part of history politics. Geschichtspolitik has become a standard term in the German vocabulary to denote “an interpretation of history by political motives, and an attempt to convince the public that this interpretation is the correct one.”

Polish supporters of history politics also insisted on asserting “healthy patriotism” with the help of history, and resisting the “distortions” of Polish history inside and outside the country. Admittedly, they acted honestly when they decided to borrow the notion of history politics to name their program, since it conveniently described its objective. Unlike Germany, the history politics concept took firm root in Poland, and since 2004 it has been the subject of heated debates and analysis.

History politics manifestations have become typical for almost all East-European countries in the past decade, although its supporters are not ready to admit they are acting in this vein. In a bid to legitimize history politics, its advocates would argue that there is nothing markedly new in it, that it has been routine practice with all nations, and that the situation where the government has no clear and vigorous history politics is not normal. My disagreement with the advocates of history politics is that I regard it a recent phenomenon that differs markedly from “usual” politicization of history and politics of memory.

THE NATURE AND MECHANISMS OF HISTORY POLITICS

As often happens with new phenomena, the gist of history politics is difficult to grasp or give it an accurate definition, because its mechanisms and objectives are deliberately concealed, as a rule. History politics is especially prominent in post-Communist societies. This is partially due to increased public interest in history and the “white spots” inherited from the Communist censorship. The heritage of the previous regime is also important at the level of intellectual habits and reflexes, and the available historiography.

Essentially, history politics is characteristic of post-Communist societies that freed themselves of the rigid forms of authoritarian ideological control. Strictly speaking, history politics would only apply to democratic, or more or less pluralistic societies, which proclaim the freedom of expression. It is in these conditions that politics emerges – as a competition between various political actors, parties and opinions. In the Soviet-type authoritarian regimes, the state’s interference in historical studies and politics of memory stemmed from the official presumption of ideological monopoly, censorship and administrative control over professional historiography. “Dissident” historians were berated at the Communist party meetings, and those who stuck to their views were ousted from their profession.

These mechanisms change in societies that claim to be democratic. Unlike the former Communist system in which one political party represented the state, the ruling party in a democracy no longer identifies with the state. The public sphere becomes pluralistic, and the state is unable to control it, let alone repress it. Pluralism finds its way into education, and each teacher of history – in line with the education standards – must have a free hand in selecting textbooks and interpreting the events and processes as laid in the curriculum. All historians must have equal access to archives in accordance with the law, not by the authorities’ decisions. The funding of schools and research does not give the right to the ruling party to dictate the content of teaching or research, because the money comes from the national budget, not the party’s coffers. The budget is the taxpayers’ money, therefore the ruling party cannot lay a claim to ideological monopoly.

It is these new conditions – which the state observes or pretends to observe – that provide for assertion of certain interpretations of historical events as dominant. In other words, using administrative and financial resources of the state, the ruling party performs the ideological indoctrination of society with regard to historical consciousness and collective memory. (This primarily concerns controversial historical events or processes that arouse public debate.)

In my opinion, in understanding the phenomenon of history politics, it is not so much the subject of propaganda that is important, as how it is done or what methods this propaganda uses.

Modern history politics is unable to return to the Soviet-era methods and impose a single opinion, even though its advocates would wish it. They need to invent new methods of regulating historical outlooks and interfering into the politics of memory, as well as new strategies to legitimize this interference.

What are the new mechanisms? Poland and Ukraine, for example, have set up Institutes of National Remembrance, and similar organizations have been formed in other countries.

Another example of the institutionalization of history politics is establishing museums under direct patronage of certain political forces that completely ignore the positions of their opponents. For example, the Warsaw Uprising Museum was set up under the patronage of the Kaczynski brothers; Hungary’s right wing set up the “House of Terror” in Budapest, while Ukraine’s former President Yushchenko patronized the opening of the “Museum of Soviet Occupation” and a standard exhibition on Holodomor at regional museums. 

History politics is manifest in legislation too, when parliaments adopt laws that fix a certain interpretation of historical events as the only correct one. There are bills, proposed or even passed, that envision criminal punishment for those who challenge the prescribed interpretation, and this happens not only in Eastern Europe.

IDEOLOGICAL JUSTIFICATION

Ideological justification for history politics is based on four postulates.

First, history and memory are presented as an arena of political struggle against external and internal foes. Hence a conclusion is thrust upon historians: they no longer have to regard the principles of professional ethics as a norm of trade, and, as rank-and-file fighters on the ideological front, they must be supervised by more “experienced” and “patriotic” people.

Second, the claim that “all nations do it” is used as an excuse for the obvious breach of the democratic principles of the functioning of social sciences. This manifests itself in the imposition of restrictions on the freedom of expression, ousting of unwelcome opinions to the mass media sidelines, and changing the principles of funding. For example, the distribution of research grants is no longer controlled by the scientific community; instead, the government allocates money for projects implemented on its direct political order.

Third, it is taken for granted that the external foe keeps asserting an interpretation of historical events that is harmful to the nation. It is the duty of historians therefore to jointly confront the danger, generally by defending the contrary argument, that is, by saying “no” to each of their “yes,” and visa versa.

The same happens to relations with the outside world: the supporters of history politics on both sides of the border enter heated debates. Since neither side tries to convince or understand the opponent, such discussions only mount tensions.

Fourth, the allegedly poor condition of patriotism and teaching of history at schools serves as a pretext to widely exploit history politics. The proponents of history politics use these arguments in their calls to suspend pluralism of opinion in textbooks. In actual fact, national interests are just a cover, as there is always a party/political aspect to the true objectives. The “genuinely patriotic” version of history invariably turns out to be advantageous to certain political forces. In reality history politics is a tool to campaign for the electorate and remove competitors within or outside of the framework of lustration laws.

HOW IT IS DONE IN RUSSIA

In a public lecture on history politics in Poland, Ukraine and Russia that I gave in April 2008, I endeavored to formulate its specifics and draw public attention to this phenomenon. Noting that history politics in Russia was less manifest than in the neighboring countries, I expressed an apprehension that that was only because Russians are slow to harness the horse. I claimed then that the consequences of a vigorous history politics, if implemented, would be far more destructive due to the specifics of Russia’s political structure. Regrettably, my apprehensions came true.

History politics showed the first serious signs in Russia several years ago, when a team of “historians” published the so-called Filippov’s history book, which is actually a set of textbooks on the 20th century history. The first product in the series – teacher’s book on Russia’s newest history was released in 2007; it was followed by History of Russia, 1945-2007, and a user’s guide on 1900-1945 events. The textbook on this period is due to come out shortly.

The authors of the textbook state that the main task of teaching history is bringing up true patriots. In actual fact, Filippov and his co-authors promote the brand of patriotism which is understood as loyalty not so much to the nation, as to the authorities whose faults are largely explained by a hostile international environment and the necessity of mobilization. Essentially, it is the discourse of today’s ruling elite, which addresses the past and is remarkably similar to the Soviet post-Stalin narrative, with the exclusion of Communist rhetoric.

The last chapter in Filippov’s textbook is devoted to sovereign democracy. This notion is presented not as an element of ideology of the Russian ruling political party, but is used as an objective description of the incumbent political regime which, as the textbook claims, ensured the country’s successful development in the past decade. Danilov’s textbook is based on the same premise. This is remarkably consonant with what Andrzej Friszke wrote about a similar situation in Poland: “If we deal with a narrative which the central authorities edit, being guided by their own ideological/political interests, we have indoctrination… Today, indoctrination that is taking place in Poland is truly insolent. A veritable war for memory is underway.”

In the past two to three years, Russia has shown the tendency for regulating issues of history by means of legislation, which is so characteristic of history politics. In the winter of 2009, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the leaders of the ruling United Russia party, was the first to broach the necessity to adopt a law threatening criminal prosecution for “incorrect” remarks about the history of World War II and the Soviet Union’s role in it. As of now, two bills pursuant to this idea have been submitted to the Russian parliament.

In the summer of 2009, the public learned (accidentally, it seems) about a directive by academician Valery Tishkov, deputy academician-secretary of the history and philology department of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The document offered the directors of RAS institutes to compile a list of historical/cultural falsifications with the names of “the individuals and organizations responsible for disseminating them.” The information was to be supplied within three days. It is not difficult to imagine what Pandora’s Box this directive has opened, and what practice of snitching and squaring it can revive.

Another example of history politics, Russian version, is President Medvedev’s decree, dated May 2009. It sets up a commission under the President of the Russian Federation to counteract attempts to falsify history to Russia’s detriment. The decree raised a wave of criticism from professional historians and public at large. However, the number of negative opinions in the mass media decreased dramatically fairly soon. This may be explained by a flagging interest, but we cannot rule out that the Kremlin muzzled the press. Either way is bad. If the mass media were told to keep silent, it means the authorities do not wish to hear criticism and are determined to bring public historical consciousness under political control. If the public is gradually losing interest in this issue, assuming that the decree would have no serious consequences, it is being very naХve. The decree has legal force and will be implemented. The accidental or intentional “signals” that already reach us give us an idea of what the consequences might be.

Statements made by active supporters of the decree to set up the commission – particularly by Pavel Danilin and Alexander Dyukov – warrant interesting conclusions. Danilin authored the texts on sovereign democracy which were included in Filippov’s textbook. Danilin expounds the ideas of history politics activists with appealing sincerity: “It is the amateurs who have won contracts with publishers and have large print runs of their books, which review the events of the Stalin era, World War II and the end of the tsar’s epoch at a much higher level than professionals can afford. These amateurs and enthusiasts are Russia’s main heritage. They do not spare themselves in defending historical memory and in fighting against falsifications… The official historians… lean towards revisionist positions.”

Danilin’s article undoubtedly calls for looking for the main “falsifiers” within the country, and fighting them relentlessly. “The revisionists have raised their heads and speak through the main mass media as if under Goebbels.” In his view, the newly established commission to fight the falsifiers of history should be not a scientific or academic, but a political body, whose main objective is political work, not research.

Alexander Dyukov, a young man with a degree in History, recently set up the Historical Memory Foundation and published a series of books on topical historical issues. One of his books is devoted to the attitude of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army to Jews, and looks quite decent. The only surprising fact it contains a large amount of materials from the Federal Security Service archives, which Dyukov said were published for the first time. Professional historians know how difficult it is to get access to the FSB archives and obtain new materials there.

The title of another book, which Dyukov compiled and edited together with Igor Pykhalov, speaks for itself: Great Slandered War II. We Have Nothing to Repent For! The foreword to the book graphically illustrates the authors’ style which they borrowed from the worst works written in the “history politics genre” by Russia’s immediate neighbors: “Our enemies – external and internal – encroach on the most sacred – the people’s memory of the Great Patriotic War. They are trying to deprive us of the Great Victory. Echoing Goebbels’ propaganda, the pseudo historians try to convince us that the Victory was allegedly won at a too expensive price, that it turned into the enslavement of Eastern Europe, that Red Army soldiers allegedly “raped Germany,” and that almost all Soviet citizens who endured Nazi occupation were exiled to Siberia. This book is a rebuff to the slanderers, a refutation of the dirtiest, most mendacious myths about the Great Patriotic War, disseminated by Russia’s foes.” At the same time, the authors claim that the documents of the FSB central archive “show that the Soviet authorities conducted an extremely moderate and merciful policy towards the Nazi collaborators.”

The above statements by the two Russian activists of history politics reveal its key factor: it ruins room for dialogue in society on history problems. This dialogue is crucial for effective existence of history in a social environment; in Russia, it is being substituted with the dispute between “patriots and traitors,” where the “traitors” must – ideally – be deprived of the freedom of speech.

Dyukov expresses hope that representatives of the Historical Memory Foundation will be directly involved in the Commission’s activities and that they are ready to take over the leading role in servicing history politics, and ensure that the project inspired and financed by the government be implemented.

This is but another evidence of how history politics changes the principles of relations between the authorities and science. Until recently, the money allocated by the state for research, including in history, was distributed through foundations that operated on the basis of the research community’s expert estimates. This is the way it should be done. But now historical research has become a sort of a contract for spin doctors, it is the authorities who decide on its funding, not the scientific community.

Dyukov’s position is also noteworthy in what regards foreign experience in combating falsifications, which Russia could borrow. Specifically, Dyukov and his associates believe Russia should look at the Latvian Commission of Historians set up in 1998. The key tasks of this body are to provide theses for the officials’ “occupation rhetoric” and raise the issue of “crimes against humanity in Latvia during the Soviet and Nazi occupation (1940-1991)” in the international arena. Latvia also has a government commission for “assessing the number of victims of the Soviet totalitarian Communist occupation regime and determining places of their mass burial; collecting information about reprisals and mass deportations; and calculating the damage done to the Latvian state and its residents.” All of it should be used as a basis for advancing official financial claims to Russia.

Dyukov also cites the example of the Estonian parliament which set up a government commission in 1993 to “investigate the policy of reprisals by the Soviet occupation forces.” The “White Book” listing “the losses suffered by the Estonian people from the Soviet occupation,” which was compiled by the commission and published in 2003, served as groundwork for a large-scale anti-Russia propaganda and the demand that it “reimburse the damage caused by the occupation.” Another commission set up under the Estonian president – the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity – ended its work in early 2009; reports said it might be used as a basis to create an Estonian Institute of National Remembrance.

The “Institutes of National Remembrance” are specific historical-ideological agencies, functioning in East-European countries on state budgets. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance, set up by parliament in 1998, became the first such agency. In the 1990s, Lithuania set up a body along similar lines: the Genocide and Resistance Research Center. The center is a department under the Cabinet; its director is approved by the Seimas (parliament) upon the prime minister’s proposal.

In Ukraine, the Institute of National Remembrance was launched in May 2006. It actively cooperates with “historians” from the Security Service and the Ukraine-3000 Foundation, headed by Yekaterina Yushchenko, the wife of the former Ukrainian leader. Characteristically, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance recently announced that it was impossible to cooperate with Russian historians for ideological reasons (the administration of the Institute of National Remembrance resented the fact that Russian historians view the 1930 famine as a common tragedy of all Soviet people, not Ukraine’s tragedy only).

“All of these organizations are funded from the state budget and have a solid potential,” Dyukov said. 

Essentially, the recently established Russian commission for combating falsifications of history is an instrument of history politics similar to the institutions acting in the neighboring countries. There are several obvious structural and functional differences, though.

First, unlike in Poland, for example, Russian security services are direct successors of the Soviet KGB. As a result, KGB archives were never retrieved from under control of secret services. This resembles the situation in Ukraine where the Institute of National Remembrance acts under the patronage of the Ukrainian Security Council, which provides the institute with archive documents whenever it deems necessary. Consequently, neither Russia nor Ukraine can adopt an effective law on lustration.

The experience of Poland and other countries where such laws do exist shows that lustration gives a wealth of opportunities for reprisals against political opponents on the part of those who are in government. The fact that security service archives were taken from under their control immediately after the collapse of the Communist regimes in no way interferes with this practice. In Russia and Ukraine, lustration cannot be implemented at all because the authenticity and completeness of the archival documents are questionable, to put it mildly.

The composition of the Russian commission for combating attempts to falsify history, which includes several secret service officers, clearly shows that the authorities are keen to keep the status quo in what concerns access to archives. The Russian law on declassification of documents upon the expiry of the 30-year period does not work. The law stipulates that researchers are granted access to these documents after this period, and that only individual documents can remain classified upon special decisions. Instead, it is common practice in Russia to declassify every particular document upon decision by a specific departmental commission. This practice will definitely persist, and access to documents will only be granted to “selected” researchers working “on order.”

Second, research and publishing functions in Russia have been distributed among a limited number of organizations and centers. These organizations are political, rather than academic.

Thus, Russia has been clearly displaying all the key elements of history politics in the past two years.

First, there is an attempt to impose upon schools one and the only textbook on history – edited by a political center.

Second, special politically biased institutions have been set up to engage in historical research and control the archives and the publishing business.

Third, Russia is making an attempt to legally regulate interpretations of history.

Finally, it uses the methods to legitimize and give ideological support to the above practices that are typical of history politics. As in a majority of East-European countries, the arrow of history politics is pointed at society. Indeed, if the neighbors’ history politics moves evoke a justified indignation and contempt in Russia, the advocates and masterminds of the Russian brand of history politics can hardly hope that the results of their efforts will be treated otherwise by the neighbors.

Having embarked, like its neighbors, upon the road of history politics, Russia only contributes to intensifying the atmosphere of the “dialogue of the deaf” which increasingly characterizes the discussion of issues of the recent past. The “mirror” response, when “yes” from one side is invariably followed by “no” on the other side, is hardly effective in fighting history politics pursued by other states. There are quite a few historians and public figures in all neighboring countries who resolutely criticize their authorities’ historical policies. A reasonable and worthy way to resist history politics in neighboring countries is not by paying them back in kind, but by developing a dialogue with the opponents to history politics in those countries.

The ruinous consequences of history politics in Russia may be much tougher than in other countries: the weaker pluralism and democracy, the fewer opportunities society and the guild of historians have to resist history politics. In post-Soviet Russia, historical science has made tangible progress. Russian historians have overcome much of the methodological lag and established contacts with foreign colleagues. Diversity of opinions is now perceived as a norm in the academic community. Confrontation has given way to dialogue among both professional historians and amateurs. If interference of politics in history continues to develop at such a fast rate and in the same vein as in the past two or three years, Russia will suffer a major setback. This country has repeatedly demonstrated that it can bring foreign ideas to absurdity.

*  *  *

This article was written in 2009; since then important political developments of early 2010 have significantly changed the situation. The new President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, has abandoned the aggressive line in history politics, which was promoted by his predecessor, and stopped insisting on the genocidal character of the Ukrainian famine. President Medvedev reacted adequately, visiting the Memorial to the Holodomor Victims of 1932-33 in Kyiv. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk met with Vladimir Putin in Katyn to jointly commemorate the victims of the Stalinist terror. One can hope that Russia’s leadership and the leading politicians in some of the neighboring countries decided that the confrontational history politics should be abandoned. The speed with which the situation is changing is the best proof that history politics is a matter of political choice and can be avoided regardless of how complicated and painful the relations between different nations were in the past.

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