Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stalingrad's 60th Anniversary

Ten years ago, I accompanied Ambassador Sandy Vershbow down to Volgograd to participate in the 60th Anniversary celebration of the Soviet Victory at Stalingrad. As we approach the 70th Anniversary celebrations, I thought it would be appropriate to put up on the blog my E-Gram on the 60th Anniversary festivities. Most of the veterans I met with, including General Valentin Varennikov, are now gone, but one thing about the celebration has not changed: Vladimir Putin is still President.

Russia Update: Friday, February 14, 2003

Stalingrad's 60th Anniversary

Over the February 1-2 weekend, Russia held numerous commemorative ceremonies honoring the 60th anniversary of the Victory at Stalingrad.

Ambassador and Mrs. Vershbow (right) attend the foreign
delegation wreath-laying at the Heroes Monument in Volgograd

Wreaths and flowers were laid at the graves of military heroes buried near the Kremlin Wall, and cities and towns all across Russia marked the occasion in their own way.  The most significant observances, however, were held in Volgograd itself, the site of the 200-day battle that some say determined the outcome of World War Two. [1In the days leading up to the ceremonies, thousands of representatives from all over Russia, and a couple of dozen foreign delegations, converged on the "Hero City." [2]  Once there, they paid their respects to the 2.7 million soldiers and civilians killed in the campaign, [3] and suitably commemorated a victory that was both hard-won and emblematic of an era rapidly passing into history.
As delegations gathered for the sexagesimal celebration of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi forces at Stalingrad, two questions remained uppermost in the minds of the organizers of festivities: first, would the weather cooperate, and second, would President Vladimir Putin?  In the end, the weather was good on Sunday, the one day that counted most, and Putin, despite many rumors to the contrary, flew into Volgograd on Sunday afternoon to spend six hours participating in most of the main events.   The Volgograd authorities and Governor Nikolay Kirillovich Maksyuta were much relieved.

 Ambassador and Mrs. Vershbow with two veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad
The 60th Anniversary celebrations of the victory at Stalingrad were of particular interest for two reasons.  First, this is probably the last time that a major contingent of veterans of the Stalingrad battle will be represented at a ten-year anniversary, as the older generation is rapidly passing from the scene.  The average age of surviving Stalingrad veterans is 83.  The few hundred that participated this year will be whittled down to only a few dozen by the time the 70th Anniversary celebration rolls around.  Second, in recent months the symbols of Stalingrad have been used by the Communists and various hard-liners as a political football, a ready tool in their early campaign efforts to make a good showing in the December 2003 Duma elections and the March 2004 Presidential contest.  Putin's quick dash to Volgograd on Sunday was part of his counterstrategy to claim the symbols of Stalingrad for his own campaign and his own supporters, and to shut the door on the Communists.  The President's efforts, however brief, appear to have been largely successful. [4]

The American delegation, led by Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, arrived in Volgograd on Friday January 31, a little earlier than most, in order to meet with local businessmen and exchange program alumni and to conduct other outreach activities. 
Even though the U.S. delegation's arrival was delayed for over nine hours due to bad weather, the decision to go early turned out to be a good one.  The weather was truly abysmal for most of the four days we were in town.  It snowed heavily in the mornings, shutting down airports for hundreds of miles around.  The snow then melted rapidly into slush, or "slyakot," and the evening skies around Volgograd were blanketed in a bone-chilling fog.  Overnight there was a hard freeze, and in the morning the process started all over again.  Although the special trains carrying Stalingrad veterans and representatives of Hero-Cities arrived in Volgograd on time, planes carrying the bulk of the delegations, including most of the foreigners, did not filter into town until Saturday evening or early Sunday morning, and the initial ceremonies were therefore sparsely attended.
Fortunately for the organizers, the weather cleared for a few hours on Sunday, bathing the military parade and numerous wreathlayings in bright sunshine, before reverting to dismal form on Monday.

The first major event of the victory celebration was the Saturday afternoon "Reception for delegations taking part in the anti-Hitler Coalition" at the New Experimental Theater. [5Despite its rather misleading title, the Germans were also invited to the proceedings. 
They might well have wished to have been snubbed, however, as the next three hours were consumed by round after round of self-congratulation and periodic German-bashing.  One delegation after another -- representing virtually all of Russia’s 89 regions --was invited onstage to hold forth on why Stalingrad was such a marvelous victory for the world (which it was) and to present the ever-accommodating Governor Maksyuta with paintings, vases, statues, clocks and other weighty gifts which were dutifully carted off to an unseen storage area.
None of the presentation speeches were met with significant applause, until, that is, speaker number 43 showed up: the American Ambassador.  Ambassador Vershbow spoke for only a few minutes, but the audience paid close attention.  The Ambassador told the assembled delegates that those veterans who had fought at the battle of Stalingrad held a particularly respected place in the hearts of all Russians, and all Americans as well.  “Our two countries were Allies during the Second World War, enemies during the Cold War, and are becoming allies once again.”  Our Presidents had joined in a “powerful partnership” to fight international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to develop new ties between NATO and Russia, and to promote trade and investment.  “May this new U.S. Russian partnership be lasting, warm and productive, based on our shared values and, to use President Putin’s phrase, on the ‘logic of common interests’ in this new century.  Returning to the theme of the Stalingrad battle, the Ambassador quoted Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and then concluded that “we can never do justice to the memory of those who died here, or to the suffering and the bravery of those who survived.  Their sacrifices here turned the tide of the war and ensured victory for the Allies against Hitler.”  The Ambassador's remarks were met with a generous round of applause, particularly by the Stalingrad veterans down front, who were likely the only ones in the room who remembered a time before the Cold War when the U.S. and Russia actually were full-fledged allies.
The final speaker was the German Consul General in Saratov, Dr. Axel Weishaupt.  The German Ambassador, Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, had been scheduled to speak, but his arrival had been delayed by bad weather.  The climate was a bit chilly for CG Weishaupt as well, and he received more than one cold stare from members of the audience, many of whom were still used to treating Germany as the enemy.  It must be said, however, that Weishaupt, reading von Ploetz’s prepared remarks through an interpreter, did his best to defuse the situation.  He gave a conciliatory speech, calling for increased cooperation between Germany and Russia to honor the memory of those who fell at Stalingrad.  His effort was met with polite applause, and even some veterans in front joined in.
After the forty-fourth speech, the organizers announced that time had run out, depriving the 30 remaining speakers from Siberia and the Far East of the opportunity to repeat the same themes.  Everyone trooped rapidly to the exits, relief evident on a number of foreign faces, and disappeared into the thick fog that enveloped Volgograd's Square of Fallen Fighters.  Those foreign delegations that had managed to arrive despite the bad weather returned to the safe haven of the Hotel Intourist, on the east side of the square, while Russian guests marched off to sample the marathon of cultural delights that awaited (see schedule  -- note five).
As day two of the Stalingrad victory celebration dawned, everyone was still guessing as to President Putin's schedule, but the local authorities were happily convinced that he would indeed show up for the main events. They were only half right, as the President did not arrive in time for the morning wreath laying at the Eternal Flame of the Monument to the Red Defenders of Tsaritsyn and Stalingrad. He was also nowhere to be seen for the military parade that took place shortly thereafter on the Square of Fallen Fighters. No one minded too much, however, for the weather had finally decided to cooperate and the parade itself was most entertaining. The parade's 10,000 onlookers were bathed in brilliant sunlight as the principal guests took their places on the "Tribuna" (reviewing stand) and stared directly into the rising sun (not very good planning, that).
Bigwigs lined up on the Tribuna.  Kazantsev is speaking.
Volgograd Mayor Yuriy Chekhov got the proceedings rolling with a fine martial speech.  He was followed in quick succession by Southern Region PolPred Viktor Kazantsev, Volgograd Oblast Governor Nikolay Maksyuta and State Duma Speaker Gennadiy Seleznev, each of whom seemed to be trying to outdo the other in military and patriotic spirit.  Notable for his absence was one national-level official who had recently been making a lot of political hay out of the Stalingrad anniversary: Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov.  Ever since Zyuganov decided to launch the Party's Duma and Presidential election campaign in Volgograd last December, the national media have treated him as a non-person.  These days, most of Zyuganov's press conferences and speeches are reported in the Moscow media, but not nationally.  Evidently, his presence was no longer welcome in Volgograd either, particularly on the eve of President Putin's arrival. [6]
20th Division Troops pay homage to the Stalingrad fallen.
To start off the parade, about 800 soldiers from the Volgograd 20th Guards Motorized Rifle Division marched by, dressed in the uniforms of Army units that had actually participated in the battle of Stalingrad 60 years before, including the 70th, the 56th, the 20th and Chuykov's 62nd Army.  As they paraded by in phalanx formation, they were followed by troops from the Volgograd MVD Academy and young cadets from academies in Novocherkassk and Rostov.  All 800 soldiers then advanced in a large square formation to the reviewing stand, singing "We Bow to the Great Ones of Those Years" (Поклонимься Великим Тем Годам). In a moving tribute, they kneeled for a minute of silence to honor those who had fallen at Stalingrad.  I couldn't help thinking at the time that those 800 soldiers represented only about three hours' worth of Russian casualties in the actual 200-day battle of Stalingrad.  The 10,000 onlookers, for their part, represented only about two days' worth of civilian casualties, about the same amount of time taken up by the weekend ceremonies.
The marchers were followed by a parade of 60 military vehicles that included a working "Tridtsatchetverka" (T-34 tank) and trucks towing M-30M artillery.  The rest of the vehicular column was made up of more modern equipment, including BRDM's, BMP-2's, several T-72 tanks decked out in rather impressive-looking reactive armor, Towed Mortars, D-30 Howitzers, MTLB's towing MT-12 anti-tank guns, 2S3 152mm self-propelled howitzers, 2S19 self-propelled howitzers, Grad multiple launch rocket systems and several 2S6, SA-8 and SA-11 anti-aircraft systems.  With the vehicular column safely out of sight, the assembled guests and onlookers hurriedly decamped for waiting fleets of buses and the trek up Mamayev Kurgan.
Mamayev Kurgan is one of the most impressive military monuments anywhere in the world.  In the original battle of Stalingrad, Mamayev Kurgan was known simply as "Hill 102," a prominent high point in the middle of the city that commanded the main approaches to the Volga.  Because of its strategic location, the German Army committed significant forces to its conquest in September and October of 1942.  The Germans succeeded in taking the summit, but were never able to dislodge the Soviets completely from the reverse slope of the hill.  The Soviet Army answered with massive attacks that continued through the last four months of the battle.  As a result, Mamayev Kurgan was the site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the entire war.  No one knows exactly how many people were killed in the battle for Hill 102, but the numbers are in the tens of thousands. 
Today, the summit of Mamayev Kurgan is crowned by a gigantic statue of Mother Russia.  Taller than the Statue of Liberty, Mother Russia brandishes a sword high in the air, and appears to call on Soviet troops to advance with her to the summit of the hill.  The effect is quite impressive.  At the base of the statue are graves of many of the thousands who defended Stalingrad, including Marshal Vasiliy Chuykov, the commander of the 62nd Army, and a mass grave for 35,000 soldiers and civilians.  Further down the hill there is an enormous Pantheon, which contains an Eternal Flame and a circular wall inscribed with the names of 7200 of those who fell at Mamayev Kurgan. 
• Mother Russia, as viewed from the Path of Glory

On the day that we visited Mamayev Kurgan, over 200,000 people paid their respects at the memorial. The official delegations all went at the same time, mingling with the enormous crowds of people that were already there by the early afternoon. The path to Mamayev Kurgan is not easy, as one must walk up a series of steps and esplanades nearly a mile long known as the "Path of Glory" (Аллея Славы).  After taking the initial steep flight of steps the delegations traversed the Pyramid Poplar Walk, then "Defense to the Death" Square, ruins from the Stalingrad battle, the Square of Heroes, and finally bas-relièfs depicting battle scenes.  Nearing the base of Mother Russia, everyone filed into a wide tunnel leading to the Hall of Military Glory and the Eternal Flame.  At the Eternal Flame itself the delegations laid wreaths and observed a minute of silence, and then took the spiral ramp up and out of the Hall, past headstones dedicated to those who fought at Stalingrad, and at last to the base of Mother Russia.  The walk down the hill is much the same, although most fortunately, the foreign delegations had buses pre-positioned for them at the summit.
Shortly after the other delegations were safely out of the way, President Putin arrived in Volgograd and made his own pilgrimage to Mamayev Kurgan.  He brought with him from Moscow three veterans of the battle of Stalingrad: mortar crew commander Ivan Slukhay, fighter pilot Sergey Kramerenko, and General Valentin Varennikov. [7]  At Mamayev Kurgan, Putin visited the Hall of Military Glory, laying a wreath and kneeling at the Eternal Flame.  At the insistence of a veteran of the 37th Division, he also paid his respects at the grave of Marshal Chuykov.  He then drove off to the Stalingrad Battle Panorama Museum, which contains a 360-degree view of the battle as seen from Mamayev Kurgan.  There he met with eleven Stalingrad veterans, the same ones he had met in Volgograd during his previous visit in February 2001.   Needless to say, they were full of praise for his performance as President, and presented the usual pleas (make medicine more affordable, make sure the young know about the sacrifices of Stalingrad, raise our pensions, etc.).  It was all very good TV and well staged, which is to say that there was no news whatsoever.

The evening brought the final large event of the victory celebration: the "Ceremonial Meeting and Concert dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of the defeat of the German-Fascists by Soviet forces at the Battle of Stalingrad."  This meeting, which was held at the Central Concert Hall on the banks of the Volga, was a virtual festival of hard-liners.  Conservative Governors rubbed shoulders with ancient veterans, local Communist Party leaders like Alevtina Aparina prowled about looking chuffed, and most foreigners felt a bit out of place.  There were also a number of people present at the gathering that we had not seen in awhile.  One such worthy was former Yeltsin Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, aka "Pasha Mercedes," who engaged the Ambassador in a spirited debate about U.S. Iraq policy, but shied away from questions about just what he had been up to lately. [8] 
General Ryan Meets a New Recruit
As the honored guests filed into the concert hall to take their places for the next round of speeches, President Putin was still nowhere to be seen (some said that he was still finishing up a courtesy meeting with Volgograd Governor Maksyuta).  In the front rows sat 250 Stalingrad veterans.  Occasionally, one would stand up, recognize a familiar face and run over to embrace an old comrade in arms.  One old veteran repeatedly stood up and addressed those entering the hall with the words:  "I am a veteran of the 92nd Regiment.  I don't see any of the boys here.  Is there anyone here from the 92nd Regiment?"  He never got a reply.
Putin made his grand entrance with Maksyuta to general applause, and spoke first.  His speech was a model of diplomacy and moderation.  He praised Stalingrad's veterans for their noble deeds and the contribution they made to winning the war against Fascism.  "Hitler wanted to enter Stalingrad in a parade march, but he never did.  Instead, Paulus' army was surrounded and defeated."  Putin then noted that today's Russia faced a new threat -- international terrorism -- and that in this struggle Russia had many allies, both old and new.  Perhaps mindful of his upcoming trip to Germany and France, Putin made sure to quote Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's message to the Russian people on Stalingrad, which had been delivered in Moscow the day before.  In particular, Putin drew attention to the German leader's statement that "Stalingrad is a symbol of the immeasurable suffering that the attack of Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union brought upon millions of people."  Putin also seconded the German Chancellor's call for closer cooperation between the two countries as a tribute to the fallen.  Putin was warmly applauded, although with less enthusiasm than might have been expected.  It may be that the audience was looking for a bit more flag-waving and a bit less diplomacy.
They were not to be disappointed.  After a somewhat lackluster speech by a clearly exhausted Governor Maksyuta, Valentin Varennikov was given the floor.  He gave the hard-liners in the audience just what they wanted, noting that the victory at Stalingrad was a triumph not just for the Soviet people but for "Stalin personally" (hearty cheers from the front rows at this remark).  Varennikov then decried the sorry state in which Russia found itself at the end of the twentieth century and praised President Putin for putting the country back on the right track (more applause).  Varennikov concluded by noting that "We are always ready to support you, Mr. President, in defending the true interests of the country.  We ask you, Mr. President, to make sure that 2003 is the year in which Russia changes fundamentally for the better.  We are confident this goal can be achieved."  These words pleased the crowd, of course, but it is highly unlikely that the fundamental changes envisaged by Varennikov are quite the same ones wanted by Putin.  On the other hand, they did fly down together on the same plane, didn't they? 

What followed was a most entertaining evening, with performances by legions of talented singers and dancers from all over the country.  The night was topped off by the appearance of a hard-liner favorite -- Iosif Kobzon, the Frank Sinatra of Russia.  The intermission saw the disappearance of most of the invited guests, including Putin, who sped out to the airport for a plane ride home.  The rest of us contented ourselves with fireworks on the embankment, and "separate but equal" receptions for foreigners and Russians at various hotels and restaurants around the city. 

The Volgograd ceremonies ended the next morning as they had begun, in sheets of fog and driving snow at the airport.  This time, however, despite the truly nasty weather, our flight took off only two hours late.  One might suspect that Volgograd officials, for all their hospitality, were nonetheless anxious to see that all foreign guests were sped on their way as quickly as possible.  It was a smooth ride back to Moscow -- back to the sun, and back to Putin, and away from Stalin, snow, and "slyakot."  We can hardly wait to see what the 70th anniversary will bring.




Note 1.  For video coverage of the Stalingrad 60th story, go to the following links:


RTR Video:


Veterans parade in Volgograd


ORT Videos:


President Putin takes part in 60th anniversary celebrations


Russia celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad


Volgograd Celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad


Note 2.  There were representatives from 77 of Russia's 89 Federation Subjects, including some 35 Governors (most of whom were delayed by the winter weather).  There were also 23 foreign delegations, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland, Israel, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Israel.  About 250 veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad also came to the ceremonies.  back to text


Note 3.  No one really knows how many people were killed in the 200-day battle.  Most historians estimate that about 1.1 million Soviet soldiers, 1.1 million civilians and 500,000 Axis troops were killed during the entire course of the campaign, which lasted from July 17, 1942 until the surrender of the German Sixth Army in the Stalingrad pocket on February 2, 1943.  Some Soviet estimates put the number of killed for Germany and her allies much higher, at around 800,000 to one million.  Estimates for those killed just around Stalingrad itself also vary, but generally are in the half million range for Soviet soldiers, with an equal number of civilian deaths.  German and other Axis losses in and around Stalingrad are estimated to be at least 150,000 killed, not counting the 100,000 or so who were captured and never returned from the POW camps.  back to text

Note 4.  For background on the politics of Volgograd and the debate over returning the city to its former name of Stalingrad, see E-Gram No. 021 Russia Update: Election Politics Cloud Preparations for Stalingrad 60th Anniversary Celebrations  -- Friday, January 17, 2003.  back to text


Note 5.  The following was the schedule of events for the 60th Anniversary celebrations.


Saturday, February 1


1315 - 1600     Reception for delegations taking part in the anti-Hitler Coalition, including CIS countries, Hero Cities and Subjects of the Russian Federation at the New Experimental Theater (Note: Despite its rather misleading title, foreign delegations -- including the Germans -- were also invited to the proceedings).


1500                Musical and Poetry Concert "Наш Сталинград" (Our Stalingrad), at the City Musical Theater.  Holiday Concert at the "Дом Офицеров" (Officers Club).


1600                The Third All-Russian Festival of National Culture "Salute to Victory" dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Fatherland War at the Central Concert Hall.


1700                Holiday Concert at the Volgograd Oblast Philharmonic.


1800                Film Festival on the Battle of Stalingrad at the Volgograd Movie Theater.


Sunday, February 2


0930 -1030      Wreathlaying at the Eternal Flame of the Monument to the Red Defenders of Tsaritsyn and Stalingrad (also known as "Heroes Monument").


1000 - 1100     Military Parade of the Forces of the Volgograd Garrison at Fallen Fighters Square.


1130 - 1210     Wreathlaying in the Hall of Military Glory at Mamayev Kurgan. 


1400 - 1600     Minute of Silence, followed by a tour of the Stalingrad Battle Panorama.


1630 - 1900     Ceremonial Meeting and Concert dedicated to the 60th Anniversary of the defeat of the German-Fascists by Soviet forces at the Battle of Stalingrad.  Location: Central Concert Hall.


1900                Fireworks.  Location: Volga embankment.


2000 - 2200     Receptions for participants in the Battle of Stalingrad at the Intourist, Volgograd, Tourist and other restaurants.  back to text   back to text (second time)


Note 6.  For background on Zyuganov's election campaigning, see E-Gram No. 021 Russia Update: Election Politics Cloud Preparations for Stalingrad 60th Anniversary Celebrations  -- Friday, January 17, 2003.  For the story on Zyuganov's exclusion from regional media, see an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta of February 2, 2003 entitled "Zyuganov is Permitted Only for Muscovites" (Зюганов Разрешен Только Для Моосквичей).  back to text


Note 7.  President Putin has very discerning taste when picking seatmates for the trip to Volgograd.  Valentin Ivanovich Varennikov is a case in point.  It is true that Varennikov is a distinguished veteran of the battle of Stalingrad, where he commanded a mortar battery.  He also took part in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery.  It is, however, Varennikov's more recent history that is of greater interest.  Twelve years ago, as Deputy Minister of Defense, Varennikov was one of the founding members of the GKChP, or State Committee for a State of Emergency, the organization that attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.  After the failure of the coup attempt, Varennikov was detained by the authorities.  Varennikov was the only coup plotter who refused to accept amnesty, and thereby to acknowledge any guilt, and he was formally acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1994.  A dedicated Communist, Varennikov was elected to the State Duma in 1995, serving until 1999.  Currently, he serves as President of the Association of Heroes of Russia.  A more detailed biography can be found at:  back to text


Note 8.  Pavel Sergeyevich Grachev, aka "Pasha Mercedes," was President Yeltsin's Defense Minister from 1992 until 1996.  During the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, Grachev rose to fame as the commander of a paratroop unit that refused the orders of the Emergency Committee to arrest Yeltsin.  In October 1993, Grachev gave the order to bombard the Russian White House, then the headquarters of the rebellious anti-Yeltsin Duma, once again saving the day.  Also in the early 1990's, Grachev was accused repeatedly of massive corruption, including involvement in the wholesale theft of equipment from the Western Group of Forces in Germany.  In 1994 the corruption scandal grew even more serious when Grachev and several cronies were implicated in the murder of Moskovskiy Komsomolets investigative reporter Dmitriy Kholodov.  Moskovskiy Komsomolets continued its crusade against Grachev, culminating in an article entitled: "Pasha Mercedes, a Thief Who Should Be in Prison, Not Defense Minister."  Grachev sued the paper and won, but the moniker "Pasha Mercedes" stuck.  Grachev's downfall came with the First Chechen War.  Initially suspected of selling heavy weapons and armored vehicles to the breakaway Chechen Republic, Grachev was one of the most dedicated supporters of the war against Chechnya, which began in late 1994.  Cynics say that he wanted to destroy the evidence of his illegal arms deals by destroying the Chechen military and government; others say Grachev simply had no idea of how incapable his own forces really were when faced with a determined guerilla foe.  Grachev was dismissed in June 1996, and two months later Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed signed the Khasavyurt Accords, ending the First Chechen War.  "Pasha Mercedes" was out government and out of a job, but apparently not lacking in financial resources.  He continued to live up to his nickname with a very lavish Mercedes-filled lifestyle.  In 1997, Grachev was appointed chief military adviser to the General Director of "Rosvooruzheniye," a major arms exporter.  On June 27, 2002, six associates of Grachev were acquitted in the Kholodov murder case.  Grachev himself, who was under investigation for the murder but never charged, continues to maintain that while he often expressed displeasure with Kholodov's articles, he never gave anyone orders to kill him. A standard biography of Grachev is available at:   back to text



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