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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Deborah Hoffman

Memoirs of Childhood in the GULAG

The four pieces that follow are translated, with permission, from Deti GULAGa, Semen Samuilovich Vilenskii, ed., (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnyi fond "Demokratiia," 2002), a publication of the International Democracy Foundation headed by Alexander Yakovlev.

Testimony of Al'dona Volynskaia

Al'dona Volynskaia lived in a Soviet orphanage for four years after the arrest of her parents in 1938. She survived the German occupation of Ukraine and a concentration camp. Upon liberation she was herself arrested by the NKVD. She lives in Moscow and heads the Society for Victims of Two Totalitarian Regimes.

The Lenin Children's Home No. 1 was located in the town of Novoukrainka, in Kirovograd Province. It held 400 children. Of those 400, 38 were children whose parents had been repressed, and the rest were children whose parents had died of starvation in the 1933 famine. Near the dining hall there was a large pear tree that never bloomed. Beneath it there was a hole into which the bodies of children who starved to death there were thrown.

At the Memorial Society there is a map of all the Gulag camps, but nowhere is there a map of the network of children's homes that dotted our entire country. They spawned a mutilated generation.

I lived first in Moscow, then with our nanny in Istra, where I went to school. After my father [1] was expelled from the Party, I was transferred to P.S. 275 in Moscow, and a completely different life began. For example, the teachers, after learning that my mother had been expelled from the Party, once called me to the staff room and began to question me as to what year my mother joined the Party, and I answered "My mother is not a Party member."

One day Mama [2] was summoned by the NKVD and didn't come back. Three days later some men and women came to the apartment and asked me whether I had a grandmother, saying that I was going to live with her. It was obvious that they were lying, since they didn't ask where she lived. A search began. I was allowed to take a satchel of books with me, and two additional books. I chose a volume of Pushkin and Chekhov. They didn't let me take a photo album. They placed some children's things into a bag. A neighbor lady winked at me, slipped a piece of crepe de chine into the bag, and asked if she could give me some candy. It was then that I understood that without permission nobody had the right to give me anything anymore.

I was taken to the Danilovskii Children's Reception Center, where there were eight children in all, including Elia and Nelia Iuvian, Lida Karnitskaia, and Vera Berdelisova.

I was taken to the basement, where I was fingerprinted and photographed in front and in profile, holding a board with letters and numbers on it.

The girls had been there more than a month, and they told me that almost everyone at the overcrowded Center had recently been taken away to children's homes.

Then Uncle Misha, the NKVD representative, informed us that we were going to a children's home in Odessa, on the Black Sea. We were taken to the train station in a Black Maria with the rear door left open and a guard who held a revolver. On the train we were ordered to say that we were A-students who were going to Artek [3] for the rest of the school year.

They took us to the Birch Tree Special Children's Home in Odessa Province. There were more than 500 children there whose parents had been arrested. The home consisted of limestone barracks in the middle of the steppe. Once a boy from the older group came into our group and told us that he was ashamed to be playing and not thinking about how many people had been arrested, that there couldn't be so many enemies of the people in the country.

Soon the children's home was disbanded, and we were sent in groups of 30 or 40 to separate children's homes. Now I realize that there were even informers among the children, and the NKVD had been frightened by such conversations.

Our group - 38 children - was sent to Novoukrainka, in Kirovograd Province. Hungry and tired from walking several miles on foot, we arrived at a squat, dark building, which turned out to be the dining hall. The tables had been set with food, and every bowl had more than a dozen flies floating in it. At that time none of us could eat that soup. Later on we would eat it, even if another child had spit into it. We constantly went hungry there.

One time a commission came, and everyone was served full dishes of vegetables. They asked us, "Is it good? Do you like it?" "Yes we do!" The commission left and the cafeteria lady screamed, "We haven't eaten for three shifts!" and threw the leftover "food" into the garbage.

We were covered with sores from malnutrition, and the kind nurse Maria Ivanovna told us, "Greens won't help you; you need to eat meat." One day they gave us each a piece of fried meat that smelled so strongly of kerosene that even the dogs who were constantly following us wouldn't eat it. Obviously a sick cow who'd been treated with kerosene had died.

The street where the children's home was located also had a flour mill, a creamery, and silos of sugar beets. Hungry children would flock to any passing cart carrying grain, corn, beets, or seeds. They'd manage to fill their pockets with things to eat while being beaten with a whip.

It was cold in the bedrooms, and we usually lay two on a mattress in our clothes and boots, covering ourselves with a second mattress and a blanket. Once a month we were taken to the bath. I remember with disgust how we had to wipe ourselves off with wet sheets. There were no handkerchiefs, no gloves, and you wiped your nose on your coat sleeves, so that they looked like tanned leather.

What was especially cruel were the rebuffs I had to listen to in order to get money for postage stamps. My mother would send 3-4 rubles from the camp where she was, but before they would give them to me I had to listen to a sermon about how there was nothing to write to enemies of the people.

If we received a D in our schoolwork, we, the non-Komsomol members, had to attend a Komsomol meeting at which every Komsomol member was supposed to explain that my "D" was an enemy "D," although they frequently received seven or eight "Soviet" Ds.

The war began. We carried bundles of newspapers from the typesetter's to the station, and when school ended we were sent to a Pioneer camp seven miles from the city. The Germans were already close, but we were told that it was an "assault." Most of the educators and staff of the children's home fled. The director, Polina Panasiuk, stole soap, fabric, and the personal possessions of the children whose parents had been arrested. She took Elia Iuian's violin and my piece of crepe de chine, along with Nina Isakians' gold watch. She sold the soap and the other things and left on a steamboat, abandoning young children in a besieged Odessa without a kopek.

To the end of the war she worked as the head of a sanatorium, continued to steal, and in the end hung herself.

At the Pioneer Camp we found out that the city was surrounded, except for the road to Odessa. I, Elia Iuian, and Masha Polivanova, barefoot and in our shorts and print dresses, took a satchel of seeds and went towards Odessa, but the military division would not let us through, not even to spend the night in the village. Towards morning we returned and everyone cried and embraced us. Then Larisa Shadurskaia, the principal, arrived and took the 40 oldest children (out of 400) and said that wars come and go, and that the older ones should perish in order to save the younger ones, who will continue to live after the war. We divided ourselves according to work. Natalka Liashko milked 14 cows, and I would help her. We reaped, tied sheaves, harvested sunflowers, etc. The boys rubbed the seeds from the sunflower heads onto tarpaulins, laid in a store of firewood, and kneaded and dried dung for fuel. The collective farm director asked us to help gather the harvest. He gave us honey and a breed sow, which later gave us 14 piglets.

When the German advance divisions left, we, the older children, repaired the mud houses, and everyone returned to the city. All of the work was completed by children. I, Elia Iuian, Natalka Liashko, and Aina Saulit worked "under the Germans" as washerwomen, and were assigned part-time work. Without firewood or soap we washed linen on wooden boards, and boiled, ironed, and removed "Soviet" lice. Many of us worked at the hair salon or the tailor's, as janitors, waitresses, cooks, and swineherds, and the boys looked after horses. We gradually started to forget about hunger, as there was no one to rob.

For three days the Germans drove our prisoners of war through Novoukrainka. We gave our pieces of bread to the young boys and they slipped them into the hands of the sickest ones. Women tossed food into the crowd of prisoners, and a pile began to build up. The Germans started shooting the prisoners then and there. After the column left the women buried the dead in a ravine. Then we took a wagon and rode through the streets, reciting prayers and asking for mercy on the souls of the departed. We used to boil vegetables, and the little boys would carry the food in a cart to the nearby Adabash camp. The Germans would let children into the camp.

When the older children reached 16, the Germans began to take them for bridge construction. They were warned they'd be taken to Germany. Verochka, the most beautiful girl, married a 70-year-old man from the village in order not to go to Germany. Larisa Shadurskaia warned Olia (Golda) Chervinskaia that she should hide in the countryside, but after 2 months she came back; nobody had taken her. The polizei came at night, called all the Jewish children from a list, and took them away. We thought they were going to the ghetto and gave them our most valuable possessions: postcards, kerchiefs, scarves. The next day we found out that all the Jews in the city had been shot. It turned out later that the Germans had demanded lists of the children in the home, and the lists had indicated their ethnic origins, which nobody had ever paid attention to before.

When refugees from Poland were retreating through the city, two little Jewish boys and a little girl, a blond with blue eyes who wore an orthopedic shoe, arrived at the children's home. None of them spoke any Russian. We called the little girl Masha and she was set up with us in the laundry. She wasn't strong, but she tried to help. These children survived; no one gave them away.


1. Party worker; arrested in Istra in 1937 and shot in 1938.

2. Employed at the Kamensk-Uralskii Metallurgical Works (KUMZ) and then as an Instructor on a Regional Committee. Arrested in 1938 as a "family member of a traitor to the motherland" (ChSIR).

3. An exclusive children's camp in the Crimea.

* * * * *

"Where Were Their Mothers?": Irina Gentosh

Irina Gentosh (1926 - 1995) survived the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine. Being of German descent, she and her mother were evacuated to Germany in 1943 during the occupation. In 1945, after going through a filtration camp and interrogations with SMERSH (military counter-espionage), they returned home.

It's the winter of 1932-1933 in Rostov-on-the-Don. I'm seven years old. More and more often I hear the word "famine." Other new words also appear: workers' cooperative, ration-cards, vouchers, torgsin [1]. That's where my mother brings our family wealth: her ring and a pair of silver spoons. The torgsin store is like a fairy tale. I stand at the window and look at the kielbasa, sausage, black caviar, candy, chocolate, and pierogis. I don't ask for anything, as I know very well she can't buy it. The most she'd been able to buy for me was a little rice and a piece of meat. No, I, a sickly only child, don't go hungry. I won't eat mamaliga; it's so pretty to look at - like boiled cream - but it tastes disgusting. I also hate barley, and am surprised how greedily Len'ka eats it. Len'ka is the little boy who lives in the apartment above us and sometimes comes over to play. He's quiet, good-natured, and doesn't talk back. He always looks like he's shy and afraid of everybody. Later on I find out that Len'ka's grandfather has died, and the grown-ups are saying there's nothing to bury him in. There's no coffin. I'm frightened and confused. Does that mean the dead body's going to stay in the house? I want to ask Len'ka, but he hasn't come for a long time. Then I find out they made a coffin for the grandfather out of broken boxes and buried him. But Len'ka still doesn't come. It's only a long time later I'm told that he also died. They were very quiet people, Len'ka's family, and they starved in silence. It was the weakest that died, the old and the young.

At the beginning of the 1930's, my mother enrolled in courses at the Russian Red Cross in Rostov to become a nurse. She finished with flying colors and went to work at the Gynecological Department of the Proletarian Hospital. That winter her department, like many others, was closed and turned into a Children's Department. The patients there were the besprizornye, homeless children, who were starving. These words I already know very well, and I'd seen the besprizornye more than once. One time was at the market where one of them - dirty and tattered - tore a bag out of my mother's hands, and another time was on the road back from Grandma's in the evening near a huge vat where asphalt was heated during the day. The vat was still warm, and they were sleeping next to it, huddled in a warm, dirty, horrible pile. Tucked in my bed at home, I keep thinking intensely and can't understand why they're sleeping outside in the winter. Where were their mothers? All of my questions received the same answer: "Famine." But what famine was and why it was happening, I never could understand.

At home my mother often talks about the children in her department. I even come to know a few by name. Tonight she has to work, but there's no one to leave me with. I'm happy to go with her. We quickly go down the hallway to the duty station. She puts on a white coat and then says I can go out and meet some of the children. Of course I'm shy and I hesitate. So she brings a few children into the duty station.

In front of me are strange creatures in long printed nightshirts reaching to the floor. Of course I know very well that they're children, but how can Mama call them nice? How can she even tell them apart? I see only shaved heads covered with scabs, unbelievably skinny pale faces with sores on the lips, and arms that are thin like sticks.

I can't tell which are boys and which are girls. Their hands are also covered with scabs, and when they pull up their floor-length shirts I can see their huge stomachs as they scratch them, and the skinny stick-legs they stand on.

I think Mama realized the extent of my shock and immediately took the children away. Now at home I hear endless stories about these children. Often they're not directed at me at all, but what can you hide from a child in a two-room apartment? When I don't want to take my cod-liver oil, she talks about how the children grab the spoon out of her hands and how they lick it clean. At night in bed I hear her telling someone in the other room how she'd barely been in time that day to take a little boy down from a noose in the bathroom. The older ones had tried to hang him because he wouldn't give them his bread ration. I already know all about mange, ringworm, and bloody discharge from the rectum.

The older children kill sparrows in the hospital courtyard, bake them in cinders, and eat them, innards, bones, and all. I often hear about death. My mother remembered one little boy, very young, for the rest of her life. His death was long and difficult. On his last night she sat near him constantly. He was delirious and thrashing about, and in his delirium kept calling for his mother and asking for "'taters." It had gotten light out already when he suddenly became calm and subdued, opened his eyes wide, looked at her senselessly, smiled, and said, "Mama came. She brought 'taters."

And died.

No war, no blockade, no occupation, not even a drought. Our wealthy south! Many, many years would pass before I understood that the reason for all this was contained in one new and very difficult word: collectivization.


1. A state store that provided food in exchange for precious metals or foreign currency (D.H.).

* * * * *

"I Couldn't Understand Why Nobody Was Supposed to See Me": Nadezhda Kapralova

Nadezhda Kapralova's (1939 - ) mother was sentenced in 1947 to four years in a Corrective Labor Camp and nine years of exile because her husband stayed in Poland after being a prisoner of war. As an eight-year-old, Nadezhda Kapralova was left alone to wander homeless and live in railway stations.

I lived in the village of Polianka, in the Pustomytovsk Region, Lvov Province, with my mother, A.S. Boitsar-Didur, who was born in 1914. It was 1947, a difficult time after the war. Mama sold tickets and worked as a railway attendant. I was eight years old, and I remember how scared we were at night. The house was huge. It had two stories and a waiting hall for passengers with ticket windows. At night Mama would lock up as much as she could, and a lot of times we didn't light a lamp because there'd be shooting at night and you never knew what kind of people could come to use the well. And in the morning they'd say that they'd caught someone; that was called a round-up. One time at night people were watering horses at the well and actually broke it. Mama taught me how to pray, and we prayed to God, and that's how she distracted me so that I wouldn't get so scared I'd cry.

One day some people with weapons came took Mama away, and I crawled onto the window ledge to see where they were going with my mother. They didn't close the door after them, and it was dark, drafty, scary, and very cold. I sat on the window ledge the entire night and waited for her until morning, when the neighbors came to the well for water and found me, frozen and tearful, on the windowsill. "But where's Mama?" I told them what I could, and they took me home with them. They'd give me bread or milk and I carried packages to my mother. It was terrible to walk the 10 -15 kilometers and have to make it by 7:30 a.m., when they closed the window and wouldn't take packages. I walked half-clothed and barefoot through the cold morning dew and the rain, afraid of Gypsies and dogs at every step.

I went there every day for three months, sometimes every other day, hoping each time to return with Mama. During that time everyone who was in the house went somewhere else, and I had no one. When I tried to go to relatives even to eat a little and spend the night, almost all of them either would not let me in or would ask quietly, "Did anyone see you?" I'd say, "No," and would try to walk through backyards so that nobody really could see me. I was already used to it, except I couldn't understand why nobody was supposed to see me. I was a very honest girl, and wouldn't even take someone else's apples from the orchard, though I really wanted to.

One time they wouldn't take my package, and a soldier told me, "Don't cry, little girl, your mother isn't here; they've taken her to Lvov. Come to my house and have something to eat." But I ran away, suddenly very frightened of everything. I ran until I came to a grove of trees, and there they were, the gypsies, but for some reason they didn't hurt me and even sat me near the fire. Then my wanderings really began. Instead of going to school, I went to work as a nanny in various families, but not everyone would agree to that. I often had to pasture people's cows, collect wheat sheaves and clean them by hand, eat grain, and glean and bake potatoes that had been left in a field. I was completely without documents or money, and alone. I came down with pneumonia and got tuberculosis. For a while I convinced the station attendants at the railroad station in Lvov that I was waiting for a train that would arrive at five or six o'clock in the morning, which I had found out from the train schedule, and they wouldn't chase me out. That way I'd sleep on a bench. Then all the attendants figured out my ruse. A few pretended that they believed me, but the mean ones chased me away. I hid from them and was very afraid, especially of the adult men, because they might make advances, even to me.

During this time Mama was sentenced to four years of imprisonment and 10 years of exile in Krasnoiarsk Territory under Article 54-12 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR.[1]

Thirteen years later I was finally able to see my mother. The closest of relatives, a mother and daughter, were reunited in Siberia, and at the same time we were strangers to each other. We spoke in fits and starts, mostly crying and sitting in silence.

You can't describe it all, it was a terrible dream, like it was happening to someone else. I don't know how I survived, nobody does, only the Lord God.

I prayed constantly, automatically, and while I was on the move. I'd gotten used to it and tried to survive, and survive with dignity, to the extent it was possible. I'd even jump off of trains and streetcars without paying, thinking that I would get picked up as a delinquent, put in jail, and sent to my mother, but that never happened. It wasn't in my nature to do anything more than that. I used to go to the Lvov police station on Mir Street and ask them to send me to Mama, that I couldn't live like this anymore, with no documents or anything, but the policemen would laugh and say, "Go home, little girl." They themselves didn't believe that this girl didn't have a home and didn't belong to anyone.

But it pleased the Lord that I should survive, and I survived. It turned out my mother wasn't guilty of anything. How could it be otherwise? What could she have done, a woman with a child, whose husband didn't come back from the war? Their marriage wasn't officially registered. After being captured he survived the war in Poland and stayed there, afraid to come home, not that there was any home.

I only found my father's grave 3 years ago, in Wraclaw. It was an indescribable feeling. I could only bow to it and say, "Prostite menia, Tato, ia vas znoichila."[2] My mother died without even knowing I'd found my father's grave.

My life was completely destroyed, but I didn't get mad at the world, which happens, and with God's help I survived, but it was insanely difficult, though I've been rehabilitated. Nobody ever returned anything.

That's everything, to say it shortly.

I'm sorry, it's difficult and painful to write about this.


1. Identical to Article 54-12 of the Russian SSR.

2. Forgive me, Papa, I found you. (Ukr).

* * * * *

From Vladimir Moroz' Diary, Kept in a Children's Home

In 1937, Vladimir Moroz (1922 - 1939), whose father had been repressed, was sent to the Annenkovskii Children's Home in Kuznetsk Region, Kuibyshev Province. In 1938 he was accused of counterrevolutionary activity and sentenced to three years in a Corrective Labor camp. On April 28, 1939 he died in jail in Kuznetsk from "tuberculosis of the lungs and intestines." He was seventeen years old.

Despair and more despair. And once again the thought, "What am I guilty of?" keeps running through my head. Why was I sent here, into this undeserved exile? In my opinion, to completely wear me down, so that I wouldn't understand what is happening, so that I couldn't fight against falsehood and injustice.

I bought a bunch of junk, including this notebook. I found out from Panfilova that I received a "good" on my literature composition. It was probably thanks to Panfilova's interference that I didn't get an "excellent." And again this depressing monotony to which these spiteful Cerberi of evil and injustice have sentenced me. I wanted to write a letter to Stalin, but I changed my mind. He wouldn't believe me, wouldn't understand me, though he's looked on as a genius. I'll decide on that only as a last resort. My only comforts are nature, cigarettes, and books. The countryside here really is remarkable. Someone from the city would be amazed by it, but would dismiss it as "country enjoyment." The vast meadows covered in crunching snow, the small peasant cottages, unimpressive from the outside but cozy and clean on the inside, the river, the forest…

The historian…It's obvious that this man is largely ignorant and uncultured. The crumbs he knows would be insufficient for a middle school student, let alone for an educator. He (the historian) loves to shake up the class by giving students an average grade for an excellent answer, and vice versa. He teaches drawing. The second specimen of an uncultured teacher purports to be a teacher of chemistry and anatomy. She has a college education, and therefore she's more guilty of the graduates' ignorance. She wants to look intelligent, but everyone sees her stupidity. She wants her speech to dazzle you, but it dazzles you with its ignorance. Finally, these "sweet" qualities are rounded off with cunning.

I got a letter from my brother yesterday. He writes that A.V., V.G., and A. have gone the way of their husbands. Insatiable beasts, don't you have enough victims? Destroy, steal, and murder if you will, but remember that the day of reckoning will come.

Bootlicking, lies, slander, bickering, rumors and similar squabbles are flourishing. And why? Because the people are inferior? No. Because of the inferiority of the pack of crooks that hold power in their hands. If a person who'd fallen asleep about 12 years ago were to wake up, he'd be just amazed by the changes that have taken place in that time. He wouldn't find the old leadership. He'd find only a government made up of beardless imbeciles who did nothing for revolution's victory, and elderly crooks who've sold out their comrades for their own welfare. He wouldn't see the "former" legendary commanders of the Red Army, he wouldn't see those who organized and built the revolution, he wouldn't see the talented writers, journalists, engineers, artists, directors, diplomats, political actors, etc. Everything is new: the people and the relations between them, the conflicts, and finally, the country itself. Are things better? Superficially, yes. Actually, no. Bootlickers are respected, slanderers are condemned superficially but feared in reality, crooks are in fashion. Thousands of people are unhappy. Thousands of people have become enraged, to a frightening degree. And this rage will break through in a huge wave and wash all this filth away. Happiness will prevail.

This is all a little abstract. I will sketch reality more concretely. Everything really started on December 1, 1934. On that day Sergei Kirov was killed by a certain Nikolaev. The murderer was connected with Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others, who had organized an Anti-Soviet Center in Moscow and Leningrad. They were tried openly and harshly. They were accused, it must be said, of fairly serious charges. Specifically, they were accused of wanting to restore capitalism in the USSR, and of arson, murder, diversion, espionage, etc. The people "demanded" the death of the guilty. Undoubtedly, they demanded it under pressure from someone, but who?! I can picture the condition of the defendants. After all, they were the oldest members of the Party, they'd been exiled and jailed repeatedly, they'd suffered. For what!! To meet death so soon, to perish at the hands of those for whom they'd struggled? The "fair, just and stern" court determined that the ZINOVIEV group turned to crime on account of "fierce" hatred of the USSR. But how on earth could they bear "fierce" hatred towards the people for whose happiness they had struggled…There are so many they could have benefited!

The personnel of the Commissariat for Heavy Industry, the Commissariat for Food, the Commissariat for Communications, and others have been destroyed. And there's yet another trial going on, the trial of an "anti-Soviet Trotskyist Center" made up of Piatakov, Radek, Sokol'nikov, and Serebriakov. And several others are also accused, notably among which are Livshits, Drobnis, Muralov, and others. They've already been accused of even more serious charges: treason, espionage, diversion, wrecking, terror, etc. Yet again there are the people's demands for the death penalty (of course under anonymous pressure), the newspaper clamor, the utter hypocrisy. The testimony of the accused was filled with repentance, but the judge didn't take this into account. Vyshinskii, the Attorney General, prosecuted the case. Again the sentence was death by shooting for all except Radek, Sokol'nikov, Stroilov, and Arnol'd. Why did they spare Radek? Many people are probably wondering the same thing. The only thing that saved him was that they were afraid to kill such a personage, such a mind. After the trial there was a time of even more horrific events. Suffice it to say that right up to 1938 such people as Bukharin, Rykov, Uglanov, Rudutak, Antipov, Bubnov, Piatnitskii, and many other People's Commissars were arrested (almost all responsible workers, engineers etc.). Horrifying events! All the former leaders of the Party and the government have been arrested, and their old friends scream "Death to enemies of the people!" "Death to spies!" etc. in order to protect themselves. And all this bears the name of justice!

Amazing. A pack of bloated parasites is brazenly ruling the country, 90% of whose population is unhappy. Servility, braggadocio, hypocrisy, etc. are flourishing. The decay of morals in our country is hidden under the appearance of general progress. I want to yell out:

How long will the Russian people
Be the chattels of their lords?
And how long will they and theirs
Be traded, like cattle, in hordes?[1]

I personally have been forced to take the anti-Soviet road. Maybe everything I've written is false. But I'm bound to look at these things from a particular point of view, from the point of view of a person who hates the existing order.

Maybe I would've remained an honest, capable worker, if Stalin and Ezhov, to whom I appealed, had helped me. But the fortunate turn a deaf ear.


1. From the song "Ах, тошно мне" by the Decembrist poets and rebels Ryleev and Bestuzhev (D.H.).

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