Russia’s Pride in WWII Victims and Heroes

As Americans are told to be very scared of a new (and old) enemy – Russia  – a more complex reality exists on the ground there, a proud and determined people, as Gilbert Doctorow witnessed at an Immortal Regiment march.

By Gilbert Doctorow

To understand Russia, it is worth reflecting on the tradition of the Immortal Regiment march on May 9 when hundreds of thousands of Russians pour into the streets of Moscow and other cities holding the faded photos of family members who died in achieving the victory over the Nazis in World War II.

Russians taking part in an Immortal Regiment march on May 9, 2017.

The march is a showing of national solidarity that is unthinkable in today’s Western Europe or the United States (although those societies also have their patriotic holidays, from Bastille Day in France to July Fourth in the U.S.). In Russia, the Immortal Regiment march demonstrates a national solidarity forged by the shared and searing experience of every family’s wartime losses, a death toll that totaled about 27 million.

This year, despite poor weather, Muscovites took pride in having a still bigger turnout than last year. The media reported that it was the coldest Victory Day in Moscow ever, yet the official crowd number was given at 850,000.

In St. Petersburg, where my wife Larisa and I attended the march, the weather also was frigid. When we departed the metro station at the top of Staronevsky Prospekt at 14:30 to join the parade, we were hit by a snow shower. It quickly stopped and the remainder of the afternoon was mostly sunny, though very cold.

Yet, in St. Petersburg, too, the turnout for the parade was at a record, with official figures putting it at 750,000. Given that the old imperial capital has an overall population less than half that of Moscow, the showing was more than respectable.

Personally, I have never enjoyed large crowds. They make me claustrophobic. But it was a very good-natured assembly. It was multi-generational with a lot of toddlers carried on shoulders of parents and relatives, while their older siblings were kept in tow, subject to warnings that “you don’t want to get lost.”

If the mood of participants may have resembled the bonhomie of strollers in New York’s Central Park on a Sunday afternoon in spring, the event clearly had its specificity, which set it apart from anything I have witnessed outside of Russia.

With all the photos of long-dead family heroes held high, the procession – from Staronevsky Prospekt past Uprising Square and along Nevsky Prospekt – had the look of a vast, moving cemetery.

My wife and I carried three photos: of her rear admiral father; her radiologist grandma who fought the whole war on two fronts; and a close family friend, an architect by profession and a poet by inclination who was grievously wounded on his third day as a militia foot-soldier at the battle of Pulkovo Heights and now has no one to remember him but us.

Many of the St. Petersburg marchers went the whole way down Nevsky to Palace Square, where entertainments awaited them. Others, like us, revived traditions of celebrating Victory Day that go back to Soviet times, as we sat down to a festive dinner at the home of friends and raised our tumblers of vodka to toast a common victory over the enemies of mankind.

Reflecting on the day’s march and the outpouring of a non-belligerent national pride, I instinctively thought of the hawks and loudmouths in the United States who portray Russia as a nation of barbarians that must be countered with military force at every turn. While that extreme propaganda is extremely unfair, it is true that Russia is a nation that should not be trifled with. The quiet dignity of the Immortal Regiment march spoke to that.

Perhaps an understanding of this reality will finally penetrate the hostile rhetoric coming from Washington – and perhaps this week’s meeting between President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will start to create an opening for an international reconciliation.

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.

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52 comments for “Russia’s Pride in WWII Victims and Heroes

  1. irina
    May 12, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you for that moving essay. I am Anglo/Alaskan but would like to someday march in an Immortal Regiment Parade.

    My choice of pictures would be to carry one of Leonid Kulik. He, practically alone of all his (and our) generations, understood what a catastrophe it would be for a space rock to impact a population center. This was based on his study of the Tunguska Event
    of June 27, 1908. Had the Event occurred just three hours later, it would have destroyed the city of St. Petersburg (where Vladimir Lenin lived at the time.)

    Following two decades of investigative research into Tunguska, Kulik took up arms as part of a Home Brigade to defend Moscow and ultimately died in a German Prisoner of War camp.

    His name and his work has been nearly lost to history but he is an important voice. Were he still alive, in the nuclear era, I am
    very sure that he would be a strong voice for sanity. What would happen in these times, if a space rock on the order of the Tunguska Event, were to explode over, for example, Pyongyang ?

    Since he is gone others must speak for him. And carry his picture in the parade.

    • john wilson
      May 13, 2017 at 5:40 am

      I’m all for celebrating victory over adversity, but I do wish the Russians wouldn’t make it an entirely military parade with tanks, missiles and other pieces of ironmongery of war. Why not have lots of people dressed in fancy dress, children from school, floats with bands and music or lots of street parties with food singing and dancing etc? Of course, the military should be there especially as they were most important to the victory, but a bit more of dress uniform and a lot less of the militarism would be nice.

      • Litchfield
        May 13, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        The Russians do that elsewhere.
        Victory Day is serious. They take it very seriously.
        In Red Square Victory Day is a military parade and demo.
        But I don’t think that is the same as the Immortal Regiment demos.
        In any event, what you wish is irrelevant. it might make more sense to try to understand what is being commemorated, and why.
        Watch this:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrKDBFJoo2w

      • John
        May 13, 2017 at 4:29 pm

        You missed the entire message Dude. The immortals is about families, citizens, memories and unity.

      • Peter P
        May 14, 2017 at 5:05 am

        John Wilson, The main parade is military, the ensuing Immortal Regiment parade is everything Doctorow says in his article.

        Contemplate 27 million dead, then multiply that for wounded, then realise every single Russian was bereaved in WW-II. Then contemplate WW-I, the Russian civil war, Napoleon, the purges under Stalin, the hostilities in Ukraine, the buildup of NATO on the border. The rampant Russophobia in the USA and EU, demonization of their popular president, being accused of hacking elections etc.

        I think that Russia by showing it’s military might is saying: Enough! Respect our sovereignty! Do not attack!

        That is understandable.

      • Alexandra
        May 14, 2017 at 10:40 pm

        Hi John. I am sorry, if it is offending you, but it what we do and how we feel. It doesn’t relay to any aggression. We are proud of our military, and the parade demonstrate what we protected and our borders are secure. Russians are not aggressive nations – this is the bottom line, but we are ready to defend our country. If other country like to have fancy dresses, dancing and food – it is fine. For us – the Victory day is not about dancing, as we lost many people and nearly half of country was destroyed. My family was lucky – both my granddads came back alive, just injured.

  2. ltr
    May 12, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I do appreciate this remembrance.

    Thank you so much.

  3. Kiza
    May 12, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    “I instinctively thought of the hawks and loudmouths in the United States who portray Russia as a nation of barbarians that must be countered with military force at every turn”

    US and Russia, it is truly two totally different worlds. One is all about profiting, cheating and suppressing, the other one is all about what makes us human, even about the importance of spirituality. I keep thinking whether the new generations of the Russians could repeat the struggle of their grandmothers and grandfathers if it ever came to it again (hopefully not). But I know for sure that in a global conflagration, the US would last only as long as it is winning with few casualties. The moment serious dying would start, there would be no more US. In other words, I could not imagine the struggle of Leningrad (St Petersburg) in US in a billion years. US is powerful but not strong.

  4. May 12, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    The hubris and ignorance of the United States are sad to contemplate. Nothing like the spirit exhibited here by Russian people for this remembrance of such an important war victory exists here, there just isn’t that kind of social unity for such a collective memory. And Americans scarcely know the debt owed to the Russians for their sacrifices in defeating the Nazis. Thank you for this essay; makes me want to learn Russian and see Russia.

    • MarcB
      May 12, 2017 at 10:23 pm

      Great essay thank you!..some older, news which isnt being reported anywhere in the western world let alone responded to….,certainly not Australia where i live …. Russia it seems is finally recognizing the threat posed to it by an Empire driven by the corrupt criminal oligarchy at the helm of the US political establishment and the out of control U.S Military complex

      ” Representatives of the Russian Armed Forces have stated that the US is creating a military infrastructure near Russia’s borders for the application of a sudden nuclear strike.

      This statement was made on April 26, the first Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Directorate,Viktor Poznihir, at the Moscow international security conference of the Russian Armed Forces.”

      http://www.fort-russ.com/2017/04/us-forces-preparing-sudden-nuclear.html

  5. Elie
    May 12, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    @ Kiza
    I too greatly admire the Russian people. And i’m not an American, so i can not pretend to know American culture deeply. But still, Americans fought the civil war where both sides endured huge losses. And they fought bravely. Maybe they lost their toughness since that time, but i would hesitate betting against them.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

      Much has happened since the American civil war. I have been persuaded that most Americans have now abandoned their duties to be citizens, instead choosing to be consumers. Somewhere around two thirds of Americans bought into the lies that led to the war on Iraq, and probably a similar number have voted to reelect the politicians that voted for that crime against humanity. One of the most irrational aspects of current American politics is that it is blatantly obvious the system is rigged to make the rich richer and the poor stuck where they are, if not poorer. Nevertheless, a majority of voters still return the politicians that are screwing them back in office.

      Maybe they lost their toughness since that time, but i would hesitate betting against them.

      and I would hesitate to bet on them. I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

      • mike k
        May 13, 2017 at 10:09 am

        I am not a ‘my country right or wrong’ person. That attitude is a betrayal of truth. If the US should prove itself evil enough to do a first nuclear strike on Russia, I would not be rooting for the US to “win” in any sense whatever.

    • Kiza
      May 13, 2017 at 12:00 am

      Elie,
      I understand that every nation reaches into the glorious past to believe in its own future. But you really need to appreciate the difference between the wars which you discuss. In essence, the US Civil War was a war for independence. The WW2 was a very different war of conquest by yet another foreign invader, the likes of which the Russians have been fighting for the last couple of hundred years. In other words, in some unimaginable situation of Russia attacking US, I could inagine US people uniting and fighting the invaders bravely. But US has never ever been in such a situation and is unlikely to be this side of eternity. Now, US is like Nazi Germany waging wars to conquer other countries, here potentially Russia. This march is primarily a message to the would be new invaders and dividers of Russia of the Russian unity, which US does not have. It is not the Russian troops which are on the US borders at this moment, then US troops at Russian borders, no matter that this has been fogged up for the Western zombie population with dollops of propaganda about Russian aggression. For the Russians such situation is déjà vu and they are showing unity in the face of it. This is what I was trying to explain.

      You really need to get better reference points for your thinking and understanding. FYI, I accept that you are not from US, but I am not Russian.

      • Elie
        May 13, 2017 at 12:15 am

        Sry, i did not mean to be rude. I don’t speak English that well, maybe something got lost in translation. I might be wrong about the Americans, and you may well know better than me. Also i did not say i was sure in the first place. It’s just that i studied war quite a bit, and its sometimes surprising to see how so many different peoples, in so many different ages, all decide to make the ultimate sacrifice and fight to the bravely to the death. In fact, one could argue that bravery in war is almost a common trait of the human race as a whole. Its both great and sad i guess.

        • Kiza
          May 13, 2017 at 1:21 am

          Agreed. Thank you for discussing points from this article and contributing.

          Regarding “Russian aggression”, no invader ever took the low ground before the invasion. It is always that the enemy is attacking us or maltreating some minority or just being mean and nasty and subhuman. This then gives us the right to attack for the benefit of humanity or for some shyte like that.

          • Kiza
            May 13, 2017 at 1:34 am

            PS. Maybe US behaves the way it does because it imported too many Nazi and Japanese war criminal scientists after WW2 (e.g. to gain knowledge of the Japanese medical experiments on Chinese prisoners). Now the DNA of these mass killers is part of the DNA of the US population.

            To my knowledge the Soviet Union did the opposite, at a cost of one or a few bullets. Not much is worth learning from the science of torture, killing and destruction.

        • mike k
          May 13, 2017 at 10:17 am

          The only real bravery is to refuse to engage in war. Everything else is just escalating tragedy and madness. All this talk of bravery in war is just to sell insanity. Wars are to mourned, never celebrated.

  6. May 12, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Unfortunately, Elie, there isn’t much cultural unity in the US–individualism, money making, and pop culture have been overstressed for too long. And the Civil War may have been fought bravely by soldiers who believed in it on their side, but industry and slavery were the major factors in the South fighting the North, and cultural negatives such as racism and regional tensions still exist today.

  7. May 12, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Yes to the article and all responding ideas positive. And then go back to Genghis Kan. Think of mother Russia as that empire’s heir, along with Iran, Mongolia, Korea and China.

    Think of mother Russia as ejecting the colonies from the nest rather than fighting to keep them at any cost.

    The China, Moscow, Afghanistan rail line follows a four thousand year-old route. It is operating at a profit and expanding rapidly. Central Russia remains the mother exporting healthy foods. It’s an old story,

    • Stephen
      May 13, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Nice post, Garrett.

  8. tina
    May 12, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    Happy mother’s day everyone out the who has a mom or mum hailed from Koenigsberg, now known as Kaliningrad , the city of Emanuel Kant. My mom is 80 years old and she is so sharp. If any of you believe in the “deep state” that our own government wants to overthrow our democracy, you are correct. Just as the deep state in the 1920’s and 1930’s were convinced this is all a conspiracy, and we must be rid of …. whomever. There is no conspiracy. We have an insane president, Trump, and we will keep making excuses for him. There is no excuse for dictators, other than we really want one.

  9. backwardsevolution
    May 12, 2017 at 11:50 pm

    Gilbert Doctorow – that was lovely. Thank you so much for that.

  10. Libby
    May 13, 2017 at 12:03 am

    Thank you for an article that reminds us of Russian humanity and solidarity in the midst of the insanity we live in.

  11. freezeframe1333
    May 13, 2017 at 7:44 am

    When you lose nearly 10% of your population to the conflict, when you come within a hairs breath of nearly losing the struggle to the Germans in its opening phases, when you are fully aware that it is literally a fight to the death (Especially so given the well documented German policies toward the occupied peoples in “Ostland,” and the plans for “Lebensraum,” that were going to be implemented after the collapse of the Soviet’s), and with little help from the Western allies (In fact some were hoping for your defeat), in spite of all the odds, all on their own, they tore the literal guts out of the most successful and sophisticated military force of its time, and would have gone well beyond the Elbe if not for the allied landings in Normandy, you can’t begrudge them their celebrations even though we here in the west hardly even remember “Victory Day,” anymore.
    The lessons of history (Batu Khan, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II and of course, Hitler himself), need to be remembered when our politicians and military leaders speak of war with Russia.

  12. Lisa
    May 13, 2017 at 9:34 am

    For those interested in close-ups of Soviet/Russian life, there are adorable documentaries on youtube of children starting from 1991, and following them every seven years. I think it is some co-production of BBC and Soviet/Russian tv companies.
    There are all sorts of children, many nationalities, from big cities to Siberian villages. At 28, some of them have emigrated to different continents, some live still in Russia.

    “Born in the USSR”

    (1991)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jgOtDTDWIs&list=PLtl_yXnJxtENtMfwGIdWbdwIrBpe4iWmw

    (2012)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=jSWkio3QKho&index=3&list=PLtl_yXnJxtENtMfwGIdWbdwIrBpe4iWmw

    The first film catches the children as 7-year olds, then 14, 21, 28. I would hope there will be a continuation next year, but I’m not certain. There are several uploadings on youtube, some with English commentary or subtitles.

    The fates of these youngsters reflect the changes in the nation. Especially moving is the life of a boy Andrei, in a Soviet orphanage at 7. He was later adopted by an American family, who had seen the film and felt sorry for him. However, things did not go so well for him. No happy end in the American “paradise”.

    • Lisa
      May 13, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      Sorry, the second link is broken. Delete the “space” between “watch?” and “v=j”, then you should get it correct.

  13. philo
    May 13, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Stalin implemented the two-year total mobilization plan prepared by Chief of the General Staff Boris Shaposhnikov at the August 19, 1939 Politburo meeting – just four days before signing the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, the one history has been rewritten to claim Hitler violated first.

    Throughout the 1930s Stalin in his speeches to the Politburo said that communism could not survive if only one country practiced it, and that building the Red Army into an invincible invasion force was necessary because Europeans would never willing submit to communist rule. It was his plan to supply Germany with food and arms to fight Britain and France, then sweep in and take all when the western powers had exhausted themselves fighting one another. But Germany’s unexpected early triumph over France and its attempts to compromise with England sabotaged the Soviet dictator’s plan.

    Germany struck the Soviet Union in 1941 because Stalin was assembling an invasion army 295 divisions strong on Europe’s eastern border. Caught in indefensible forward attack formations, millions of Red Army men were killed or captured in a matter of weeks in one of the greatest military routs in history. The Wehrmacht’s unprecedented success emboldened German leaders to believe they could accomplish the impossible, to eradicate Stalin’s terrorist state once and for all.

    We’re told he attacked the Soviets to colonize their land, but where exactly were these millions of German pioneer settlers going to come from in the summer of 1941? There was an acute labor shortage in Germany, to the extent that the government was trying to attract a million foreign workers to the Reich. The war with England was failing and a new war with an increasingly belligerent United States was clearly on the near horizon. In addition, after the defeat of Poland, Germany was actively resettling German pioneers in Posen and other German territory that had been illegally seized by the victorious allies in 1919 to create Poland (which had last been seen on a map as an independent state in 1795). Hitler estimated this project would take forty to fifty years to complete, quite exhausting the state’s limited resources for planned expansion.

    When the Red Army did counterattack, it was the largest orgy of murder, rape, and plunder seen in Europe since Attila the Hun, and after their army surrendered at least another six to ten million defenseless Germans died at Stalin’s command.

    • mike k
      May 13, 2017 at 10:30 am

      What are you trying to say with your anti-Russian rant? The cause of the world’s problems is the evil Russian Empire? Your view of history would be music to the ears of today’s nazi’s.

      • Zachary Smith
        May 13, 2017 at 4:12 pm

        There is a small element of truth to what the fellow says, but mostly it’s BS. The best explanation I’ve seen for the Red Army’s positioning at the beginning of the Nazi invasion is that Stalin was an arrogant idiot who imagined himself to be a great military thinker.

    • Tavolga
      May 13, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      That is a complete lie. Soviet solders commited crime anywhere including Germany were being shot without investigation. That was a very strict order. Statistics shows that there were few crimes commited but the amount of them was neglected. And again, those who commited crime were killed without investigation.
      All these talks about massive rape and killings are ment to reverse the real picture of the war. This is not acceptable!
      If i could talk to you i would say “shame on you”!

      • Zachary Smith
        May 14, 2017 at 12:53 pm

        It’s not a complete lie. Everybody, including the German civilians, knew what the Nazis and their Army had done in the USSR. Payback was expected, and rendered.

  14. mike k
    May 13, 2017 at 10:51 am

    Poor Hitler, according to philo’s tale he had to defend Germany from the Russian Hordes ready to pounce. Invading Austria and Poland were just defensive measures. Why is it aggressors always claim they were about to be attacked?

  15. Zim
    May 13, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for your essay. A lot can be learned from a Russian citizens reasons for national pride.

  16. Frank
    May 13, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Most important thing: during first 20 years after WW2 there was not huge event and off day on 9th of May. The cult was created by Breznev regime for his favor. Stalin was conspicuously cynic to Victory Day and let Zhukov to be hero on 1945 event. Zhukov might have been little bit confussed. Little bit latet he was dumped to sidetrack.

    No doubt Stalin maximized horrors Hitler’s war machine caused. Soviet citizens won the war not because Stalin but in spite of him. Stalin was terrible bad military leader. People and generals would have deserved better.

    • mike k
      May 13, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      More pointless Russia bashing.

    • Zachary Smith
      May 13, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      No doubt Stalin maximized horrors Hitler’s war machine caused.

      I doubt it. In fact, I’m of the opinion that the losses were downplayed to hide the weakness of the USSR after the war. No other explanation of the “Iron Curtain” seems reasonable to me.

      • mike k
        May 13, 2017 at 5:53 pm

        The “iron curtain” was made in the USA. Churchill helped a little. It’s the old story (being played out in North Korea for example) – You decide to invade and conquer a country. They erect barriers. You demonize them for the barriers and accuse them of being crazy and dangerous.

  17. mike k
    May 13, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    Neither the Russian people nor Putin are enemies of the US. But if you are practicing capitalism at the point of a gun, then you have to portray your competitors as dangerous threats in order to justify your armed attempts at piracy.

  18. mike k
    May 13, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Putin has been put in the position of trying to talk reason to a dangerous madman viz-a-viz dealing with the US government.

  19. Litchfield
    May 13, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Americans would do well to be humble and respectful.
    A Moscow acquaintance tells me that his young daughter, 6, insisted on going to the march with her grandfather despite the lousy weather. She held aloft a picture of her grandmother, who as a young woman served in the Red Army and participated in the defense of Moscow. I have seen photos her, as a young blonde beauty wearing a chic hat and makeup, as a young soldier in uniform (the picture the granddaughter held in the Remembrance demo), and in 2013 as an ancient babushka with her granddaughter on her knee and a wonderful smile on her strong face—honored by the state for her service to the nation (she died in 2024). I find these photos incredibly moving, and so do the few friends with whom I have shared them.

    Americans have never been tested as were the Russians in the winters of 1941–43. A film made by some film unit of the govt under the National Archives in ca. 1943 shows incredible footage of the German invasion, the Russian retreat under scorched earth, and then counterattacks: Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Rostov, and many, many smaller points in between. Technically the film is excellent. It also explains the strategies of both sides with excellent animated maps.
    The commentary is wholly positive on Russia (to an extent that on hindsight is poignant (in light of the postwar Stalin dictatorship). Highly recommended. It is titled “Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia.” Here is a link:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrKDBFJoo2w

    Of course, the Yanks came late to the scene, after Russia and its citizens had done the heavy lifting.
    Americans who are indulging themselve in puerile and dangerous Russia bashing who see this film will hang their heads in shame.

    • Zachary Smith
      May 13, 2017 at 4:22 pm

      Of course, the Yanks came late to the scene, after Russia and its citizens had done the heavy lifting.

      This was unavoidable, for the prewar US Army was tiny. Roosevelt and Churchill deserve a lot of credit for getting war materials to the Soviets as soon as they possibly could. Without Lend Lease the USSR could not have continued to fight.

      • mike k
        May 13, 2017 at 6:15 pm

        We were so eager to help our communist enemies (er, allies) we just rushed to help them sweep on to the coast of France. History has many twists and turns, things are rarely simple. How long did it take us to turn on our “ally” when Hitler was defeated? And do we forget the capitalist schemers who wanted the US to side with Hitler?

  20. tina
    May 13, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    I am so not afraid of the others, I am afraid of djt. What if I said something that pissed him off?

    • mike k
      May 14, 2017 at 2:43 pm

      Not to worry. He probably doesn’t hear you. With all the people needling him now, we probably couldn’t piss him off any more than he already is. I don’t think he sits around checking the comments on CN.

  21. fuster
    May 14, 2017 at 11:34 am

    rather a bunch of crap by an author who seeks to confuse hostility, well-deserved, toward the belligerent authoritarian regime headed by the creep Putin with his purported hostility toward the people of Russia.
    Doctorow is full of spit.

    • mike k
      May 14, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      The hostility you feel towards belligerent authoritarian regimes would be better directed closer to home. Like Uncle Sam?

  22. tony
    May 17, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Actually, it is a remembrance about achieving the victory over the ‘Germans’ or ‘German Army’ in World War II. the word “Nazi” is a pejorative.
    It would be like saying a “victory over the “Gooks” or a “victory over the Redskins”.

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