THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE
THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE
Archangel Area--Occupations Of People--Schools--Church--Dress--In Peasant Homes--Great Masonry Stove--Best Bed In House On Stove--Washing Clothes In River Below Zero--Steaming Bath House--Festivals--Honesty Of Peasants.
To the doughboy penetrating rapidly into the interior of North Russia, whether by railroad or by barge or by more slow-going cart transport, his first impression was that of an endless expanse of forest and swamp with here and there an area of higher land. One of them said that the state of Archangel was 700 miles long by 350 wide and as tall as the 50-foot pine trees that cover it. Winding up the broad deep rivers he passed numerous villages with patches of clearings surrounding the villages, and where fishing nets, or piles of wood, numerous hay stacks and cows, and occasionally a richer area where high drying-racks held the flax, told him that the people were occupied chiefly in fishing, trapping, wood-cutting, flax raising, small dairying, and raising of limited amounts of grain and vegetables. He was to learn later that this north country raised all kinds of garden and field products during the short but hot and perpetually daylight summer.
Between villages the forest was broken only by the hunter or the woodchopper or the haymaker's trails. The barge might pass along beside towering bluffs or pass by long sandy flats. Never a lone peasant's house on the trail was seen. They lived in villages. Few were the improved roads. The Seletskoe-Kodish-Plesetskaya-Petrograd highway on which our troops fought so long was not much of a road. These roads ran from village to village through the pine woods, crossing streams and wide rivers by wooden bridges and crossing swamps, where it was too much to circuit them, by corduroy. North Russia's rich soil areas, her rich ores, her timber, her dairying possibilities have been held back by the lack of roads. The soldier saw a people struggling with nature as he had heard of his grandfathers struggling in pioneer days in America.
To many people, the mention of North Russia brings vision of wonderful furs in great quantity. In normal times such visions would not be far wrong. But under the conditions following the assumption of central control by the Bolsheviks and the over-running of large sections of the north country by their ravenous troops, few furs have been brought to market in the ordinary places. In order to find the fur-catches of the winters of 1917, 1918 and 1919 before the peaceful security of the settled sections of Russia has been restored, it will be necessary to travel by unusual routes into the country far to the northeast of Archangel--into the Mezen and Pechura districts. There will be found fur-clad and half-starved tribes cut off from their usual avenues of trade and hoarding their catches of three seasons while they wonder how long it will be until someone opens the way for the alleviation of their misery. Information travels with amazing speed among these simple people, and they will run knowingly no risk of having their only wealth seized without recompense while en route to the distant markets. The Bolshevik forces have been holding a section of the usual road to Pinega and Archangel, and these fur-gathering tribes are wise and stubborn even while slowly dying. They absolutely lack medicine and surgical assistance, and certain food ingredients and small conveniences to which they had become accustomed through their contact with more settled peoples during the last half-century.
For those Americans in whose minds Russia is represented largely by a red blank it would mean an education of a sort to see the passage of the four seasons, the customs and life of the people, and the scenery and buildings in any considerable section of Russia.
In the north, the division of the year into seasons is rather uncertain from year to year. Roughly, the summertime may be considered to last from May 25th to September 1st, the rainy season until the freeze-up in late November, the steady winter from early December until early April, and the thaw-season or spring to fill out the cycle until late May. The summer may break into the rainy season in August, and the big freeze may come very early or very late. The winter may be extreme, variable or steady, the latter mood being most comfortable; and the thaw season may be short and decisive or a lingering discouraging clasp on the garments of winter. Summers have been known to be very hot and free from rain, and they have been known to be very cloudy and chilly. Indeed, twelve hours of cloud in that northern latitude will reduce the temperature very uncomfortably. The woodsmen and peasants can foretell quite accurately some weeks ahead when the main changes are due, which is of great help to the stranger as well as to themselves.
A little inquiry by American officers and soldiers brought out the information that the great area lying east, south and west of Archangel city has been gradually settled during four hundred years by several types of people, most of them Russians in the sense in which Americans use the word, but most of them lacking a sense of national responsibility. Throughout this long time, people have settled along the rivers and lakes as natural avenues of transportation. They sought a measure of independence and undisturbed and primitive comfort. Such they found in this rather isolated country because it offered good hunting and fishing, fertile land with plenty of wood, little possibility of direct supervision or control by the government, refuge from political or civil punishment, few or no taxes, escape from feudalism or from hard industrial conditions, and--more recently--grants by the government of free land with forestry privileges to settlers.
Notwithstanding all this, the Government of Archangel State, with its hundreds of thousands of square miles, has never been self-supporting, but has had to draw on natural resources in various ways for its support. This has been done so that there is as yet not noticeable depletion, and the people have remained so nearly satisfied--until recently aroused by other inflammatory events--that it is safe to say that no other larger section of the Russian Empire has been so free from violence, oppression and revolution as has the North.
It has been so difficult to visit this northern region in detail that knowledge of it has been scant and meagre. Although many reports have been forwarded by United States agents to various departments of their government ever since Russia began to disintegrate, such was the lack of liaison between departments, and so great the disinclination to take advantage of the information thus accumulated, that when the small body of American troops was surprised by orders to proceed to North Russia there was no compilation of information concerning their theatre of operations available for them. An amusing error was actually made in the War Department's ordering a high American officer to proceed to Archangel via Vladivostok, which as a cursory glance at the map of the world would discover, is at the far eastern, vostok means eastern, edge of Siberia, thousands of miles from Archangel. And similar stories were told by British officers who were ordered by their War Office to report to Archangel by strange routes. England, who has lived almost next door to North Russia throughout her history, and who established in the 16th century the first trading post known in that country, seems to have been in similar difficulties. The detailed information regarding the roads, trails and villages of the north country which filtered down as far as the English officers who controlled the various field operations of the Expedition turned out to be nil or erroneous. Thereby hang many tales which will be told over and over wherever veterans of that campaign are to be found.
The lack of transportation within this great hinterland of Archangel, as can be verified by any doughboy who marched and rassled his supplies into the interior, is an immediate reason for the comparative non-development of this region. It has not been so many years since the first railroad was run from central Russia to Archangel. At first a narrow-gauge line, it was widened to the full five-foot standard Russian gauge after the beginning of the great war. It is a single-track road with half-mile sidings at intervals of about seven miles. At these sidings are great piles of wood for the locomotives, and at some of them are water-tanks. While this railroad is used during the entire year, it suffers the disadvantage of having its northern terminal port closed by ice during the winter. After the opening of the great war a parallel line was built from Petrograd north to Murmansk, a much longer line through more unsettled region but having the advantage of a northern port terminal open the year around. These two lines are so far apart as to have no present relation to each other except through the problem of getting supplies into central Russia from the north. They are unconnected throughout their entire length.
Similarly, there is a paucity of wagon-roads in the Archangel district, and those that are passable in the summer are many miles apart, with infrequent cross-roads. Roads which are good for "narrow-gauge" Russian sleds in the winter when frozen and packed with several feet of snow, are often impassable even on foot in the summer. And dirt or corduroy roads which are good in dry summer or frozen winter are impassable or hub-deep in mud in the spring and in the fall rainy season. For verification ask any "H" company man who pulled his army field shoes out of the sticky soil of the Onega Valley mile after mile in the fall of 1918 while pressing the Bolsheviki southward. Good roads are possible in North Russia, but no one will ever build them until industrial development demands them or the area becomes thickly populated; that is, disregarding the possibility of future road-building for military operations. Military roads have, as we know, been built many times in advance of any economic demand, and have later become valuable aids in developing the adjacent country.
Another reason for the non-development of the north country in the past is the lack of available labor-supply. People are widely scattered. The majority of the industrious ones are on their own farms, and of the remainder the number available for the industries of any locality is small. Added to this condition is a very noticeable disinclination on the part of everybody toward over-exertion at the behest of others; coupled with a responsiveness to holidays that is incomprehensible to Americans who believe in making time into money. While the excessive proportion of holidays in the Russian calendar is deprecated by the more far-sighted and educated among the Russians, there is no hesitation on that score noticeable among the bulk of the people. Holidays are holy days and not to be neglected. Consequently the supply of labor for hire is not satisfactory from the employer's standpoint, because it is not only small but unsteady. The Russian workman is faithful enough when treated understandingly. But if allowance is not made beforehand for his limitations and his customs, those who deal with him will be sorely disappointed.
It is said that there are upwards of seventy regular holidays, most of them of church origin, aside from Sundays; and in addition, holidays by proclamation are not infrequent. Some holidays last three days and some holiday seasons--notably the week before Lent--are celebrated in a different village of a group each day. The villagers in all perform only the necessary work each day and flock in the afternoon and evenings to the particular village which is acting as host and entertainment center for that day. It is all very pleasant, but it is no life for the solid business man or the industrious laborer. Fortunately the agricultural and forestry areas of the north, of which this passage is written, yield a comfortable, primitive living to these hardy people without constant work. The needs of modern industry as we understand it, have not entered to cause confusion in their social structure. The sole result has been to delay the development of resources and industry by deterring the application of capital and entrepreneurship on any large scale.
Before the war the English had active interest in flax and timber and some general trading, and the Germans flooded the North with merchandise, but these activities were more in the nature of utilizing the opportunities created by the needs of the scattered population than of developing rapidly a great country.
Soldiers in Archangel saw American flour being unloaded from British ships in Archangel and sliding down the planks from the unloading quay into the Russian boats. And at the other side they saw Russian bales of flax being hoisted up into the ship for transport to England. England was energetically supplying flour and food and other supplies for an army of 25,000 anti-Bolsheviki and aid to a civil population of several hundred thousand inhabitants and refugees in the North Russian area. This taking of the little stores of flax and lumber and furs that were left in the country by the English seemed to the suspicious anti-British of Russia and America to be corroboration of the allegations of commercial purpose of the expedition, though to the pinched population of England to let those supplies of flour and fat and sugar leave England for Russia meant hardship. In all fairness we can only say that Russia was getting more than England in the exchange.
[Illustration: Several people in heavy clothing gathered around a scale.] U. S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Market Scene, Yemetskoe--Note Primitive Balances Weighing Beef
[Illustration: Large build surrounded by a high wall.] LANMAN Old Russian Prison, Annex to British Hospital
[Illustration: Woman rinsing clothes through a hole in the ice. In the foreground, her sled.] WAGNER Wash Day--Rinsing Clothes in River
[Illustration: Three one-horse wagons.] LANMAN Archangel Cab-Men
[Illustration: Audience of soldier watching musicians, also soldiers, on stage.] U. S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Minstrels of "I" Company Repeat Program in Y. M. C. A.
[Illustration: Several women around a table full of presents. The presents are spilling to the floor in a large pile.] U. S OFFICIAL PHOTO Archangel Girls Filling Xmas Stockings
[Illustration: About 40 soldiers seated at tables, reading and writing.] U. S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Y. M. C. A. Rest Room, Archangel
Outside of the cities in the life and customs of the people exists a broad simplicity which is unlike the social atmosphere of most of the districts of rural America. Persons, however, who are acquainted with the rural districts of Norway and Sweden feel quite at home in the atmosphere of the North Russian village life.
The villages are composed of the houses of the small farmers who till the surrounding land, together with church, school, store, and grain and flax barns. Except for a few new villages along the railways, all are to be found along some watercourse navigable at least for small barges. For the waterways are the first, and for a long time the only avenues of communication and trade. In the winter they make the very best roadways for sleds. Wherever there was a great deal of open farm land along a river several of these village farm centers grew up in close proximity. The villages in such a group often combine for convenience, in local government, trading, and support of churches and schools. The majority of the villagers belong to a few large family groups which have grown in that community for generations and give it an enviable permanence and stability.
Family groups are represented in the councils of the community by their recognized heads, usually active old men. In these later troublous times, when so many of the men have disappeared in the maelstrom of the European war or are engaged in the present civil strife, women are quite naturally the acting heads of many families; and the result has led some observers to conclude that the women have better heads for business and better muscles for farming than have the men. It is certain that in some communities the women outshine in those respects the men who still remain. The same council of family heads which guides the local affairs of each village, or group of villages, also attends through a committee to the affairs of the local cooperative store society which exists for trading purposes and acts in conjunction with the central society of Archangel. Each little local store has a vigilant keeper now frequently some capable young widow, who has no children old enough to help her to till some of the strips of land.
The election and the duties of the headman have been dealt with heretofore. His word is law and the soldiers came to know that the proper way to get things was to go through the starosta. In every village is a teacher, more or less trained. Each child is compelled to attend three years. If desirous he may go to high schools of liberal arts and science and technical scope, seminaries and monastic schools.
Of course, some children escape school, but not many, and the number of absolute illiterates under middle age who have been raised in North Russia is comparatively small. The writer well recalls that peasants seldom failed to promptly sign their names to receipts. Around our bulletin boards men in Russian camp constantly stood reading. One of the requests from the White Guards was for Archangel newspapers. One of the pleasantest winter evenings spent in North Russia was at the time of a teachers' association meeting in the Pinega Valley. And one of the cleanest and busiest school-rooms ever visited was one of those little village schools. To be sure the people were limited in their education and way behind the times in their schools but they were eager to get on.
Also, in every small center of population there is a Russian State Church. In America we have been accustomed to call these Greek Catholic Churches, but they are not. The ritual and creed are admittedly rather similar, but the church government, the architecture, the sacred pictures and symbols, and the cross, are all thoroughly Russian. Until the revolution, the Czar was the State head of the Church, and the Ecclesiastical head was appointed by him. In the North at present whatever aid was extended in times past from the government to the churches--and to the schools as well--is looked for from the Provisional Government at Archangel; and under the circumstances is very meagre if not lacking altogether for long periods. The villagers do not close the churches or schools for such a minor reason as that, however. They feed and clothe the teacher and heat the church and the school. The priest works his small farm like the rest of them--that is, if he is a "good" priest. If he is not a "good" priest he charges heavily for special services, christenings, weddings or funerals, and begs or demands more for himself than the villagers think they can afford (and they afford a great deal, for the villagers are very devout and by training very long suffering), and the next year finds himself politely kicked upstairs to another charge in a larger community which the villagers quite logically believe will better be able to support his demands. Such an affair is managed with the utmost finesse.
Within the family all share in the work--and the play. The grown men do the hunting, fishing, felling of timber, building, hauling, and part of the planting and harvesting. The women, boys and girls do a great deal toward caring for the live-stock, and much of the work in the field. They also do some of the hauling and much of the sawing and splitting of wood for the stoves of the house, besides all of the housework and the spinning, knitting, weaving and making of clothing. The boys' specialty during the winter evenings often is the construction of fishnets of various sized meshes, and the making of baskets, which they do beautifully.
On Sundays and holidays, even in these times of hardship, the native dress of the northern people is seen in much of its former interesting beauty. The women and girls in full skirts, white, red or yellow waists with laced bodices of darker color, fancy head-cloths and startling shawls, tempt the stares of the foreigner as they pass him on their way to church or to a dance. The men usually content themselves with their cleanest breeches, a pair of high boots of beautiful leather, an embroidered blouse buttoning over the heart, a broad belt, and a woolly angora cap without a visor. Suspenders and corsets are quite absent.
On week-days and at work the dress of the North Russian peasant is, after five years of wartime, rather a nondescript collection of garments, often pitiful. In the winter the clothing problem is somewhat simplified because the four items of apparel which are customary and common to all for out-of-doors wear are made so durably that they last for years, and when worn out are replaced by others made right in the home. They are the padded over-coat of coarse cloth or light skins, the valinka of felt or the long boot of fur, the parki--a fur great coat without front opening and with head-covering attached, and the heavy knitted or fur mitten. In several of the views shown in this volume these different articles of dress may be seen, some of them on the heads, backs, hands and feet of the American soldiers.
What American soldier who spent days and days in those Russian log houses does not remember that in the average house there is little furniture. The walls, floors, benches and tables are as a rule kept very clean, being frequently scrubbed with sand and water. In the house, women and children are habitually bare-footed, and the men usually in stocking-feet. The valinka would scald his feet if he wore them inside, as many a soldier found to his dismay. Sometimes chairs are found, but seldom bed-steads except in the larger homes. Each member of the family has a pallet of coarse cloth stuffed with fluffy flax, which is placed at night on the floor, on benches, on part of the top of the huge stone or brick stove, or on a platform laid close up under the ceiling on beams extending from the stove to the opposite wall of the living-room. The place on the stove is reserved for the aged and the babies. It was the best bed in the house and was often proffered to the American with true hospitality to the stranger. The bed-clothes consist of blankets, quilts and sometimes robes of skins. Some of the patch-work quilts are examples of wonderful needle-work. In the day-time it is usual to see the pallets and rolls of bedding stored on the platform just mentioned, which is almost always just over the low, heavy door leading in from the outer hall to the main living-room.
In North Russia the one-room house is decidedly the exception, and because of the influence of the deep snows on the customs of the people probably half the houses have two stories. One large roof covers both the home and the barn. The second story of the barn part can be used for stock, but is usually the mow or store-room for hay, grains, cured meat and fish, nets and implements, and is approached by an inclined runway of logs up which the stocky little horses draw loaded wagons or sleds. When the snow is real deep the runway is sometimes unnecessary. The mow is entered through a door direct from the second story of the home part of the building, and the stable similarly from the ground floor.
The central object, and the most curious to an American, in the whole house is the huge Russian stove. In the larger houses there are several. These stoves are constructed of masonry and are built before the partitions of the house are put in and before the walls are completed. In the main stove there are three fire-boxes and a maze of surrounding air-spaces and smoke-passages, and surmounting all a great chimney which in two-story houses is itself made into a heating-stove with one fire-box for the upper rooms. When the house is to be heated a little door is opened near the base of the chimney and a damper-plate is removed, so that the draft will be direct and the smoke escape freely into the chimney after quite a circuitous passage through the body of the stove. A certain bunch of sergeants nearly asphyxiated themselves before they discovered the secret of the damper in the stove. They were nearly pickled in pine smoke. And a whole company of soldiers nearly lost their billet in Kholmogori when they started up the sisters' stoves without pulling the plates off the chimney.
Then the heating fire-box is furnished with blazing pine splinters and an armful of pine stove-wood and left alone for about an hour or until all the wood is burnt to a smokeless and gasless mass of hot coals and fine ash. The damper plate is then replaced, which stops all escape of heat up the chimney, and the whole structure of the stove soon begins to radiate a gentle heat. Except in the coldest of weather it is not necessary to renew the fire in such a stove more than once daily, and one armful of wood is the standard fuel consumption at each firing.
Another of the fire-boxes in the main stove is a large smooth-floored and vaulted opening with a little front porch roofed by a hood leading into the chimney. This is the oven, and here on baking days is built a fire which is raked out when the walls and floor are heated and is followed by the loaves and pastry put in place with a flat wooden paddle with a long handle. See the picture of the stove and the pie coming out of the oven in the American convalescent hospital in Archangel. The third fire-box is often in a low section of the stove covered by an iron plate, and is used only for boiling, broiling and frying. As there is not much food broiled or fried, and as soup and other boiled food is often allowed to simmer in stone jars in the oven, the iron-covered fire-box is not infrequently left cold except in summer. The stove-structure itself is variously contrived as to outward architecture so as to leave one or more alcoves, the warm floors of which form comfortable bed-spaces. The outer surface of the stove is smoothly cemented or enameled. So large are these stoves that partition-logs are set in grooves left in the outer stove-wall, and a portion of the wall of each of four or five rooms is often formed by a side or corner of the same stove. And radiation from the warm bricks heats the rooms.
Washing of clothes is done by two processes, soaping and rubbing in hot water at home and rinsing and rubbing in cold water at the river-bank or through a hole cut in the ice in the winter. Although the result may please the eye, it frequently offends the nose because of the common use of "fish-oil soap." Not only was there dead fish in the soap but also a mixture of petroleum residue. No wonder the soldier-poet doggereled
"It's the horns of the cootie and beg-bug, The herring and mud-colored crows, My strongest impression of Russia, Gets into my head through my nose."
Bathing is a strenuous sport pursued by almost every individual with avidity. It is carried on in special bath-houses of two or more rooms, found in the yard of almost every peasant family. The outer door leads to the entry, the next door to a hot undressing-room, and the inner door to a steaming inferno in which is a small masonry stove, a cauldron of hot water, a barrel of ice-water, a bench, several platforms of various altitudes, several beaten copper or brass basins, a dipper and a lot of aromatic twigs bound in small bunches. With these he flails the dead cuticle much to the same effect as our scouring it off with a rough towel. Such is the grandfather of the "Russian Bath" found in some of our own cities. After scrubbing thoroughly, and steaming almost to the point of dissolution on one of the higher platforms, a Russian will dash on cold water from the barrel and dry himself and put on his clothes and feel tip-top. An American would make his will and call the undertaker before following suit. In the summer there is considerable open-air river bathing, and the absence of bathing-suits other than nature's own is never given a thought.
The people of this north country are shorter and stockier than the average American. The prevailing color of hair is dark brown. Their faces and hands are weather-beaten and wrinkle early. Despite their general cleanliness, they often look greasy and smell to high heaven because of their habit of anointing hair and skin with fats and oils, especially fish-oil. Not all do this, but the practice is prevalent enough so that the fish-oil and old-fur odors are inescapable in any peasant community and cling for a long time to the clothing of any traveler who sojourns there, be it ever so briefly. American soldiers in 1918-1919 became so accustomed to it that they felt something intangible was missing when they left the country and it was some time before a clever Yank thought of the reason.
Before the great world war, a young peasant who was unmarried at twenty-two was a teacher, a nun, or an old maid. The birth-rate is high, and the death-rate among babies not what it is in our proud America. Young families often remain under the grandfather's rooftree until another house or two becomes absolutely necessary to accommodate the overflow. If through some natural series of events a young woman has a child without having been married by the priest, no great stir is made over it. The fact that she is not thrown out of her family home is not consciously ascribed to charity of spirit, nor are the villagers conscious of anything broad or praiseworthy in their kindly attitude. The result is that the baby is loved and the mother is usually happily wed to the father of her child. The North Russian villager is an assiduous gossip, but an incident of this kind receives no more attention as an item of news that if its chronology had been thoroughly conventional by American standards.
Marriages are occasions of great feasting and rejoicing; funerals likewise stir the whole community, but the noise of the occasion is far more terrifying and nerve-wracking. Births are quiet affairs; but the christening is quite a function, attended with a musical service, and the "name-day" anniversary is often celebrated in preference to the birthday anniversary by the adult Russian peasant. Everybody was born, but not everybody received such a fine name from such a fine family at such a fine service under the leadership of such a fine priest; and not everybody has such fine god-parents. The larger religious festivals are also occasions for enjoyable community gatherings, and especially during the winter the little dances held in a large room of some patient man's house until the wee small hours are something not to be missed by young or old. Yes, the North Russian peasant plays as well as works, and so keen is his enjoyment that he puts far more energy into the play. Because of his simple mode of existence it is not necessary to overwork in normal times to obtain all the food, clothing, houses and utensils he cares to use. Ordinarily he is a quiet easy-going human.
Perhaps there is more of sense of humor in the apparently phlegmatic passivity of the Russian nitchevo than is suspected by those not acquainted with him. There is also a great timidity in it; for the Russian moujik or christianik (peasant farmer) has scarcely been sure his soul is his own, since time immemorable. But his sense of humor has been his salvation, for it has enabled him to be patient and pleasant under conditions beyond his power to change. Courtesy to an extent unknown in America marks his daily life. He is intelligent, and is resourceful to a degree, although not well educated.
The average North Russian is not dishonest in a personal way. That is, he has no personal animus in his deviousness unless someone has directly offended him. He will haul a load of small articles unguarded for many versts and deliver every piece safely, in spite of his own great hunger, because he is in charge of the shipment. But he will charge a commission at both ends of a business deal, and will accept a "gift" almost any time for any purpose and then mayhap not "deliver." Only a certain small class, however, and that practically confined to Archangel and environs, will admit even most privately that any gift or advantage is payment for a given favor which would not be extended in the ordinary course of business. This class is not the national back-bone, but rather the tinsel trimmings in the national show-window.
One time a passing British convoy commandeered some hay at Bolsheozerki. Upon advice of the American officer the starosta accepted a paper due bill from the British officer for the hay. Weeks afterward the American officer found that the Russian had been up to that time unable to get cash on his due bill. Naturally he looked to the American for aid. The officer took it up with the British and was assured that the due bill would be honored. But to quiet the feeling of the starosta he advanced him the 92 roubles, giving the headman his address so that he could return the 92 roubles to the American officer when the British due bill came cash. Brother officers ridiculed the Yank officer for trusting the Russian peasant, who was himself waiting doubtfully on the British. But his judgment was vindicated later and the honesty of the starosta demonstrated when a letter travelled hundreds of miles to Pinega with 92 roubles for the American officer.*****
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