A novel retelling of the October Revolution

Interview with China Miéville

China Miéville is the multi-award-winning author of many works of fiction and nonfiction. His fiction includes his latest, The Last Days of New Paris, as well as The City and the City, Embassytown, This Census-Taker, Kraken, and Perdido Street Station. He has won the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. He has written for various publications, including the New York Times, Guardian, Conjunctions, and Granta, and he is a founding editor of the quarterly Salvage.

His latest book, October (Verso Books, 2017) is a “brilliant retelling of the Russian revolution” (Guardian). It has won critical acclaim in both the literary and political worlds. The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele wrote that October radiates “the brio and excitement of an enthusiast who would have wanted the revolution to succeed.” Sheila Fitzpatrick, the respected historian of Russia and the USSR, judged October “elegantly constructed and unexpectedly moving. What he sets out to do, and admirably succeeds in doing, is to write an exciting story of 1917 for those who are sympathetically inclined to revolution in general and to the Bolsheviks’ revolution in particular” (London Review of Books).

Todd Chretien, ISR contributor and editor of Eyewitnesses to the Russian Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2017), and the editor of an annotated edition of Lenin’s State and Revolution (Haymarket Books, 2016), interviewed Miéville about October in August.

We can no longer talk about October as something passed on from one generation to the next, among families, among workplace militants, as living memories. The experience is no longer embedded in a living social layer. Rather it is a literary or historical question about how we pass knowledge across time. In your book Embassytown, you examine the nature of language and the violence that can be done in attempting to translate from one idiom to another. What challenges did you find in writing for a new audience five generations after 1917?

It’s a very interesting way of posing the question. What I was constantly aware of was trying to mediate between specifics and generalities. One of the things I try to stress all the way through the book and in discussions is that this is very specifically a story of a particular place—Russia—in a particular time—1917. There is a line to walk: the story isn’t simply a curio of that moment, but equally one wants to try to avoid a kind of kitsch, “as then, so now” reductionism. So a key point is constantly being aware of the concrete particularities of that moment that you’re writing about. To the extent that I think you can generalize out from that, it’s about rising from that concrete to the abstract—if you like, inverting Marx’s methodology! Starting from the specifics and investigating them, rather than preemptively probing to look for “applicable lessons.” If you do that, you’ll find what you look for, but not necessarily in a particularly useful or sophisticated way.

In terms of the language used, if this book does anything that’s useful, or interesting, or new at all, I think maybe it’s a function of being relatively unapologetic about the fact that it is narrative history, and embracing the “narrative” in that. There are sections of the Left that have real critiques of that form of narrative history, and they’re not stupid critiques either. I take them very seriously. But from the moment of this book’s genesis, it was always conceived of, both by me and by Sebastian Budgen, the editor, as embracing, not being embarrassed about, the fact that most of my writing has been in a fictional form. A form that has certain norms of pace and energy and formulation, and so on. I tried unabashedly to foreground those. For me it was a kind of wager, an intuition, to trust that the politics and the ramifications and the analysis would develop as a substratum of that, rather than trying to crowbar them in.

On that note, you didn’t footnote your book, but there’s an extremely valuable bibliography. Could you point out a couple of the books for people to move on to after reading October as well as a couple books you found particularly valuable in your research?

You’re right, it’s not footnoted. It doesn’t pretend to be a scholarly book, although it is extremely rigorously researched. For the duration of the novel . . . Oh! That was an interesting slip! For the duration of the book, it takes the form of a narrative, but I had very rigid rules with myself about not inventing any historical anecdotes or anything like that, and everything mentioned is exhaustively researched. I wanted specialists who read it to say, “He’s done his homework.” So the reading list at the end of the book is curated: there was an awful lot of other stuff that I didn’t list because I didn’t want to have too voluminous a bibliography. The only tinge of regret I have about that is that part of me wants to show off how much I read! I’m debating putting the full bibliography online, and including a link to that in the reading list, in later editions.

But what those listed were the books, as you say, that I thought particularly fecund, in various ways, for people who want to go further. I would say that the ones that really jump out to me are the three Alexander Rabinowitch books—Prelude to Revolution, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, and The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. They’re what I’d probably suggest first to someone who didn’t necessarily know the field but wanted to go from my book to something more scholarly. They’re indispensable. Another that does a very different job, but that I found incredibly inspiring was the Boris Dralyuk-edited 1917, a collection of poetry, essays and fiction from that year. Its job is obvious not exactly to describe events, but there’s something about the tenor and the tone it conveys that I found really unique and powerful. The last couple I’ll recommend here are the Michael Hickey edited collection Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution: Fighting Words, and the Mark Steinberg, Voices of Revolution: 1917, which contains, among other documents, unbelievably moving letters from the front. If I could point people at only one single document, it would be the extraordinary letter sent by one soldier Kuchlavok from the front to Izvestia in August 1917, from that collection.1

I have it on good authority from a friend that you and your editor were all once together on a nurses’ picket line supporting them. And that raises for me the question of the role of an artist in the political sphere.

I think I’d repeat something I said earlier about the question of walking a line. For me, the starting point for mediating being an activist and a creative writer or artist of some sort is, maybe paradoxically, not to collapse either of those two into the other. So for example one thing that you very often hear from writers or artists whose world view is political, but who aren’t necessarily activists, is that “my art is my activism.” That always makes me uncomfortable. I think it’s a fallacy. It doesn’t mean that one can’t have wonderfully politically engaged art (and I’m certainly not suggesting that there’s any rigid firewall between the two poles). But I do think it’s something of a category error to think in those “superimpositional” terms.

Conversely, we often flagellate ourselves on the left—for good reason, I must say—when there is this horrible, reductive relationship to art from a lot of the activist Left, which says, more or less, “That was a really good movie because I agreed with the politics.” At the level of producing work, if you’re putting out art, or poetry, or fiction or whatever, the idea of which is to be a thinly veiled pamphlet with “once upon a time” written at the beginning, well, that’s no way to produce interesting art. (Or, in most cases, persuasive politics.)

It’s telling to me that a lot of the artists who more effectively and interestingly negotiate that line are those who, as I say, perhaps counterintuitively, insist on a separation . . . no, not a separation, rather, and without any implication of impermeability, but a distinction between the spheres. So for example in his piece “The Dishonor of the Poets,” Benjamin Péret, the great surrealist Trotskyist poet, has a wonderful line about not making your poetry too crudely “political.” In discussing the poet as a revolutionary, he insists in a wonderfully gnarled and knotty dialectical way that

It does not follow that he [sic] wants to put poetry at the service of political, even revolutionary action. But his being a poet has made him a revolutionary who must fight on all terrains: on the terrain of poetry by appropriate means and on the terrain of social action, without ever confusing the two fields of action under penalty of reestablishing the confusion that is to be dissipated and consequently ceasing to be a poet, that is to say, a revolutionary.

Having established that distinction of the spheres, for me it’s then a question of not worrying about it too much. Having a certain trust and intuition that your hind brain will get on with it. It all comes from the same place, art and politics, if in distinct ways. An analogy I’ve used before about producing fiction and nonfiction is of ladling out portions of words from a single pot using two different spoons. Having established that these are distinct articulations, let’s then try to stop worrying about it and just get on with it. Stop flagellating yourself along the lines of “How do I relate my politics to my art?”! Try not to worry, just get on with it. Not because it doesn’t matter—it does—but because worrying about it is highly unlikely to make either politics or poetry more effective.

To move on to some key events in 1917 and your interpretations in the book. One of the long-running debates is Lenin’s role in April when he arrives back in Russia on the famous sealed train. There’s one position, for instance from Trotsky, that argues that Lenin introduced a new set of politics, the April Theses, and overturns what was a more conservative policy being followed by Kamenev and Stalin over the course of March. On the other hand, the historian Lars Lih has recently gone to the opposite extreme to argue that there was almost nothing new in Lenin’s thinking. What’s your estimation of Lenin’s April Theses on the Bolsheviks?

An important caveat here is that I am a well-read amateur in this, not a specialized scholar. That’s relevant, especially when you’re considering documents in Russian, which I can’t read. I think there is a danger of overstressing the continuity, and of overstressing the break. Partly that’s because politics, and people’s minds, can be contradictory: they contain more than one thread. There’s a danger that if you distill it down, and identify a thread and follow its line, which may indeed be there, you think that is there to the exclusion of all other contradictory threads—or that other threads don’t break. Of course, that doesn’t follow.

Now, there are questions of relatively—relatively—straightforward facts. I think, for instance, that Lars Lih basically demolishes what is a myth about Lenin’s “Letters from Afar,” the “pre” April Theses. There is a line, put forward by Trotsky among others, rather tendentiously, it has to be said, that the great break in the April Theses was prefigured by a great shock when the Bolsheviks received Lenin’s “Letters from Afar,” when he was still out of the country, in March. I think in the 2015 essay “Letters from Afar, Corrections from Up Close,” Lars Lih puts paid to that idea, and you have to say there was not a great shock occasioned by those earlier letters.2

But with the April Theses? I think the sense of a necessarily apocalyptic break with established practice has been exaggerated, to the extent that his theses are considered to have emerged ex nihilo, and that horror is held to be the only way you could be in the Bolsheviks and respond to them. Because the substance of no political position is ever without controversy, and it depends how people interpreted the previous and the new positions, of course. There were those enthusiastic about Lenin’s positions. But, as is clear if you read Sukhanov, the Left Menshevik sympathizer who was present at Lenin’s speech to the other Bolsheviks when he returned, I think it would be equally tendentious to suggest that there was no sense of shock at all, or of Lenin’s accentuation of a militant position. There absolutely was a sense of shock. At the bare minimum, to the extent that Lenin puts forward a line compatible with a dominant Bolshevik one, it’s with a different set of emphases.

The way I would mediate this is by using the famous quote from Victor Serge where he repudiates the idea that Lenin led inevitably to Stalin. He says, “Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs.” What I try to suggest in the book is that you can make a reasonable case for this being “continuity Bolshevism,” if you like, depending on what aspects you stress, but also that there’s a pretty radically new Bolshevism based on the April Theses. Personally I think there’s no question that the previously dominant strands in Bolshevism were pulled hard in a certain direction by Lenin, because of his particular take, and that that strengthened certain currents and perspectives inside the party. I believe it’s epistemologically unhelpful to think in terms of a simple binary: either it came out of the void, or it was just exactly the same as it always ways. I think Lenin did create a shift in emphasis, if one based on (certain aspects of) the existing Bolshevik program.

One more question on Lenin’s role. After the July Days, a sort of half uprising in St. Petersburg on the part of workers, soldiers, and sailors, Lenin was forced into hiding until just days before the October Revolution. During this time, he writes voluminously to the party leadership and press, but there’s often a few days lag between what he writes and when anyone reads it. You show that, often enough, Lenin’s political advice is sound, but it’s advice that has already been acted upon by the rest of the party leadership. How do you see Lenin’s relationship with the party as a whole?

One thing to emphasize is the large, and effective, middle layer of the Bolshevik Party, who operate as a conduit, out and back, up and down, to and from the regions, up from the workers and people on the ground to the party leadership, and in the dissemination of the leadership line. So at its best there was a kind of antenna very attuned to things on the ground. I think that’s partly why there was both a flexibility and a militant edge that some of the other parties lacked, even those that contained sincere, even brilliant, activists.

I don’t disagree with your formulation about Lenin, but I think you can add two other elements to any considerations. First, the giddying speed with which Lenin would change his position according to what was going on, on the ground (or what he understood to be). That’s obviously a strength. But there’s also a danger, if you are doing that while removed from the action: being out of phase for two or three days means, when you have to change tack quickly, let alone when you do so, so hard, that a misfire could be disastrous. Or, as you say, sometimes when his advice was good, because of that remove it couldn’t do much more than end up validating things that were already occurring.

Lenin was also mostly dispositionally to speak other than in absolute terms, so one thing that happens is that, honestly I think at times unhelpfully, he has this trenchant way of framing questions, which means that when he does change direction, or veer—even sensitively—it can be particularly discombobulating for his comrades. Especially because there were times when Lenin was wrong. For instance, before the Kornilov coup, Lenin didn’t just say, “There is no such thing as a conspiracy with the Right,” he more or less said, “Anyone who believes the talk of conspiracy on the right is just falling for nonsense so that they collaborate with the SRs and Mensheviks, and ultimately even fall into line behind the Kerensky government.” And he was incredibly excoriating about the very idea of it. Scant days later, to his credit, he recognizes the conspiracy existed and reacts to it. He never says he was wrong—that’s something he won’t do! If anything, you could even say that when he allows that there’s been a “downright unbelievably sharp turn in events” he implies that reality didn’t behave as one could have reasonably expected it to!

But allowing that he did make mistakes, his record of political “attunedness” is absolutely remarkable. It’s worth saying that both his comrades and his most implacable opponents repeatedly stressed this, that he had a sensitivity to these switches that was historically almost unique, completely remarkable. Which is why you end up with these funny situations, whereby, when he takes a position that his comrades find too extreme they’re able to dissemble by printing his own position—of two weeks earlier. Because given his shifts, in the context of the new moment that is, as far as Lenin’s concerned, an antediluvian relic, and nothing to do with anything. How many of us could, if you repeated our own words from two weeks ago, say, “That was a distant epoch: of course you shouldn’t take that line!”

Immediately after Kornilov was defeated, for example, Lenin’s “On Compromises,” a document about working with the other socialist parties, I find absolutely fascinating. Not because that’s a moment in which Lenin is able to formulate a particularly concrete plan—not least because of the complexity of the situation—but because it’s so sharp a switch of position, related to very effective collaborative work on the ground by activists of various parties.

I think all this might be relevant for us because sometimes we worry about dotting every “I” and crossing every “T” with respect to our formal positions, then deriving practice from some absolutely watertight, hermetic position. It’s in the nature of a messy reality that sometimes we’re not going to be quite sure, that we’re going to have to muddle through and do our best with political intuition and what analysis we’ve got. And so long as you’re not dogmatic, and if you’ve built up enough of an antenna, that’s okay.

You mentioned the Bolsheviks’ flexibility and militant edge, but also that there were revolutionaries who were in other parties. The preeminent group in this sense is the Left Socialist Revolutionaries led by Maria Spiridonova, a wonderful character who you rightly restore to the center of 1917. If the Bolsheviks were growing quickly so too were the Left SRs, but they were unable, as the Bolsheviks were, to pick a spot and fight on it. So they are left, essentially, to follow after the trail the Bolsheviks blaze. What are your thoughts on this dynamic?

There are those in what I think of as the cosplay Left that denigrate all other traditions in a sectarian and historically purblind way. That’s something we must move beyond.

In terms of the Left SRs, to speak generally, they’re almost like a mirror of the Left Mensheviks. I’d say the two share one characteristic that holds them back, relative to the Bolsheviks, and then have rather opposite characteristics that also do so.

The shared characteristic is an unwillingness to break from the larger party. We on the left get teased, understandably, about the unending infighting and splitting among socialists, but there are times, and this was one of them, when by far the least bad thing to do is to split. You have an interesting situation in 1917: both the Left Mensheviks and the Left SRs were part of larger parties containing people whose politics are worlds away from theirs, and who are deeply imbricated in the very structures that these revolutionaries are—honorably, sincerely, correctly— committed to overthrowing. So, at best you have structural ambiguity within these parties; at worst they are hamstrung. The Left SRs, for instance, pursued a position of forced disingenuity where they were lying to their own party’s leaders: they had to, because, essentially, they were going against them. The disinclination to split was something that held both them and the Left Mensheviks back.

On the other hand, if the Left Mensheviks started out from often brilliant social analyses, and then tried—to put it harshly—to jam reality into their rather abstract formulas (more than basing their analyses on the complex concrete realities of the world around them), then the Left SRs I think were the obverse: their tradition failed to prioritize analysis enough. There were impressive intellectuals among them, but even their own supporters and sympathizers would comment that the Left SRs lacked the great intellectual figures found among the Left (and Right!) Mensheviks. They thus didn’t have a strong position to fight for intellectual hegemony, in the battle of ideas, even if they were fantastic militants.

Related to the concept of hegemony, in October, you note that once the Bolsheviks have decided to lead an insurrection to take power, they commit, as you say, “slapstick errors.” You have a wonderful description of comrade Blogonravov who is in charge of raising a red lantern to signal the battleship Aurora to fire on the Winter Palace where the remnants of Kerensky’s bourgeois government is holed up. At first he can’t find a red lantern, then he can’t light it, then it can’t get it up the pole. It’s a very funny scene, but it also, it seems to me, says something about the barrier between resistance and power. What do you think allowed the Russian working class to take the final leap from resistance to power?

There’s a quote from before the February Revolution (from just after the failed 1905 revolution, in fact) about the conflicted consciousness of the insurgent worker, the jostling of their absolute commitment to struggle for change with a cowed sense, lacking in confidence against the class enemy. The activist Shapovalov talks about it being “as if two men were living inside of me,” one willing to fight and face jail and exile, the other “who had not fully liberated himself from the feeling of dependence and even fear.” The latter, of course, he hated. Such militants despised their own cowering, but they couldn’t deny that it was there. So there was a constant tearing apart from the inside, to overcome their role as the objects of history that the class system had made them, in order to become subjects. By the time you get to October, that sense of cowering, that sense of being denied by history, had been largely overcome. After February, there were incredibly moving moments where people said, “I am a human being. I own my own dignity. I have the right to this.” But what there wasn’t so much at a mass level, although it was growing, was a readiness to inhabit the fact of making decisions, and taking power on the street in a concrete way, in the institutions. One of the things you see in October as distinct from February is a sometimes quite funny, occasionally ridiculous, but mostly extremely affecting slippage beyond merely having the right to one’s dignity (which was itself immensely radicalizing in February) to the right to make the actual decisions, to take power.

There is an incredibly moving poster (which I’ve never been able to find again since seeing it, so if anyone who reads this can help, please do!) which consists of two pictures. Above is an image of a worker working, I think, on the wheels of a train, and it reads, “Before, I was an oiler; I oiled the wheel.” In the picture below he’s giving a speech before an audience, “Now I’m in the soviet; I make decisions.” That move from the first to the second is a historic and profound shift.

Speaking of trains, at the end of your book there’s an epilogue about the important role of trains in the revolution, not unlike the Mexican Revolution. You explore the relationship between, as Marx would say, living labor and dead labor and the physicality of revolution in twentieth century. It was beautifully done. You have, perhaps uniquely among writers of the Russian Revolution, imagined future or alternative times and places in your work. And I wonder what you think about this question of the physicality of revolution in the twenty-first century. If twentieth century revolutions centered on industrial labor, the great metal and textile factories of St. Petersburg, will that be the case today living amid a very different constellation of capital?

It’s a really interesting question. I don’t want to be glib, and I have no conclusions beyond a tentative sense, as you say, that any nostalgic or kitsch sense of what comprises “the working class” is something we must move beyond. We are talking about a class that is geographically and industrially dispersed into various locations and sectors. Many of those industries would have, in fact, great power in a situation of revolution—but perhaps often in more subtle and less obvious ways than one hundred years ago when, for instance, the dissemination of information was so directly related to the physical and, in most case, visible networks of communication right in front of you. It’s different today.

One corollary of this change is that, where we talked before about the three-day information lag Lenin faced when he was in hiding, it’s hard to imagine that kind of situation now. The lag is generally infinitesimal. Censorship and information control, including online, is all too real: still, I suspect, if we get to a situation like that, that the kind of censorship that despotic powers dream of will be impossible.

Now to trains. They were, yes a question of literal, physical networks in Russia and its empire in 1917. But in the book they are also an organizing metaphor. I’m interested in the power of political metaphors because, for me, humans are intrinsically metaphoric thinkers. There’s nothing inevitable about it, but I think you can sometimes think better—with more nuance, more nimbleness—with metaphoric mechanisms than without: it’s not just a question of metaphors being a kind of filigree, a literary “overlay” that floats above a more rigorous, scientific inquiry, “pretty talking” that doesn’t actually tell you anything.

I think that one of the lessons of literary modernism (among other tendencies) is that a certain type of writing, fiction and non-, can deploy metaphors and this way of thinking in a way that is not reducible to technical-thinking-plus-prettiness. That you might just come away with a richer sense of reality than if you restrict yourself to, you know, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Metaphors are something you do, not something that exists “out there” that you have to catch, like Pokémon, to decode. As such, their terms are eminently reversible. My point, for example, about the train metaphor is not that this is the best or only metaphor that gives you access to a reality of the revolution. I was in a discussion at the Tate Museum in London with Esther Leslie, the great Marxist scholar, about these issues, and she said is that she finds a great deal of traction in Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of revolution as a brake, as the pulling of the emergency brake—the exact opposite of what we often think, and of my own image. My point is, both can be right.

And, conversely, when a fascist deploys the metaphor of the train of history, or the brake, for their own ends, to depict their eschaton . . . they’re wrong! There need be no contradiction there. Because, being things you do, that’s how metaphors work, I think.

In addition to metaphors, you also use humor. What was Kamenev and Zinoviev’s nickname? The Ethereal Twins?

The Heavenly Twins!

Right. There’s a line in the book where you describe their opposition to the insurrection, and you say, “Hesitancy to overthrow the bourgeoisie was so Kamenev.” I thought that was the funniest line in the book. If there was a line written to speak to a millennial generation of socialists, that was the line! How do you use humor in writing for a new generation about a very old revolution?

I’m glad you picked up on it. Yes, honestly, it was meant to be funny!

I think the Left is sometimes not very good at humor. It’s often either clodhoppingly heavy-handed or—certainly this has been the case with the Anglophone Left—it has a rather baleful tradition of taking itself too seriously, being unwilling to tease itself, or be teased. Teasing can be destructive, of course, but it isn’t always. That brittle defensiveness is a symptom of lack of confidence. We needn’t be afraid of humor, and not all past generations were.

The writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, known as “Teffi,” who’d been close to the Bolsheviks, once quipped that “if Lenin were to talk about a meeting at which he, Zinoviev, Kamenev and five horses were present, he would say: ‘There were eight of us.’” Now, if you a leftist, you’ve likely been at an underwhelming meeting, which the organizers are frantically trying to big up. So if you don’t laugh at that line with recognition, if you pretend you don’t get it, let alone huff that it’s just not funny, then you’re kidding yourself, but no one else. It would be nice if we could be gentler and more relaxed about that kind of thing . . . it’s funny.

There is another point about the “so Kamenev” line. Sometimes Lenin and other revolutionaries were, as they themselves recognized, brutal in their personal put-downs, in ways that it’s hard, frankly, not to think were counterproductive and unwarranted. But the converse of that is important. That is, assuming that concrete perfidy hadn’t been committed, if it was more a question of having a different line, then once the political line is decided, there need be no reason you can’t continue have a perfectly civil, even humorous and warm personal relationship. So you have a brutal argument in which Kamenev’s caution is subjected to excoriating attack, but after having won the debate against him, his comrades could relax and tease him. You know, like, “You’re always the last one to sign up to the historical, epochal overthrow of the capitalist order!” There’s something simultaneously quite disturbing about the sheer vitriol of some of the personal invective—of which, again, we certainly still have experience today on the left—but also something quite moving and sweet about how quickly those can be inverted or stood down.

You can see the same thing even more exaggeratedly in October itself. Kamenev and Zinoviev had performed a truly stunning act of breach of discipline in writing against the party’s plans in the nonparty press, an act that was very damaging to the Bolsheviks’ agreed line. Yet even after that, once the politics had moved on to the point where it appeared that the contested project was going well, that battle would be won, scant days after their transgression Lenin was humorously teasing them. On the night of the insurrection itself. Now, I’m sure there was some vinegar in his teasing, but still, just as these things can go brutal very quickly, so, too, can they be taken down again. And humor could be key in that.

  1. In this letter are such moving statements as: “The rulers don’t care about our life at all, they are like the animal that having stuffed itself on acorns and then started tearing up the root of the oak; when the raven said to it from the oak, ‘Ingrate, don’t you see, this is harming the tree, it could dry up,’ in reply the animal said, ‘Let it dry up, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest just so I have my acorns.’” Letter-essay to “Comrade Citizens” from soldier A. Kuchlavok, approved by the regiment, received August 1917, in Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 207–213.
  2. The essay can be found in a number of places, including on John Riddell’s blog, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2017/0....

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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