Colossus

The final scene in the Czechoslovak film Holubice (“The White Dove”, František Vláčil, 1960) may contain a little surprise for audiences nowadays, if they know Prague, and if they look closely. The scene consists of a single shot, from a camera placed at a high vantage point somewhere on ul. Revoluční, during which the camera pans nearly the entire daytime skyline of Prague at the time of the film’s production, ca. 1959-60.


As we look up Revoluční to the south, we soon see the arched windows and crenellations of what is today the Palladium shopping center (then Josefská Kasárna, barracks for the Czechoslovak Army). Further around, other familiar buildings pass by, as Prague’s many famous turrets and spires can be seen through the haze. The twin gothic spires of the 13th-century Church of Our Lady before Týn float past, and far in the distance on a light gray hilltop is the Petřínská rozhledna of 1891 (a lookout tower inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris), which marks the hill of Petřín. After the second rooftop television antenna, we see what is probably Prague’s most identifiable landmark, the Prague Castle, Hradčany. Then, we come to a mystery.

What in the devil’s name is that?


Those familiar with today’s skyline will no doubt remember that atop the hill at Letná (the red arrow in the photograph), which overlooks the city from one end of the bridge named for Svatopluk Čech, stands a monumental kinetic sculpture resembling a metronome. In 1959, however, something very different stood there. We can see, in the picture above, the rather dim outline of a fat slab of rock, but from this indistinct image taken from afar, we cannot decisively make out what it was.

For reference, this is what stands there now.


The kinetic sculpture entitled Stroj času (“Time Machine”), by the sculptor Vratislav Karel Novák, is popularly known as the “Prague Metronome,” although the mechanism is completely different from the familiar metronome invented by Mälzel. It was erected in 1991 to mark 100 years of industrial exhibitions in Prague, and reflects that theme in its use of industrial forms and materials. It was intended to be temporary, but, as we will see, the temporary can unintentionally become permanent, while things intended for permanence may endure only for a shockingly brief time.

And, as we will further see, this post will end with a bang.

A Monument for the Ages

In 1948, soon after the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia, a decision was made to honor Stalin for his 70th birthday with a large monument for a prominent location in Prague. But the internal politics of various planning committees and other forms of political oversight virtually guaranteed that the project would take longer than expected. Much, much longer. It was over a year before a competition for the design was officially announced in 1949.

The artists of Czechoslovakia were invited to volunteer their visions for the monument, one of which would be selected for construction on the hill at Letná, a high vantage point that overlooks the city center. It was widely understood that, if you were a sculptor of any prominence, your voluntary submission was, in fact, mandatory.

The story is told that the artist Otakar Švec, a recognized sculptor who had created a noteworthy body of work during the interwar period, sat down over a dinner of goulash with a painter friend, and asked him to sketch a design. Švec liked the sketch, made some adjustments, worked it into a proposal, and submitted it, probably believing the matter closed.

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Švec did not anticipate winning the competition. He had simply assumed the outcome would be politically fixed, and was quite surprised when he found out that his design had been selected from among the 90 works submitted. The casual manner by which it was designed (apparently his friend had sketched it on a napkin) suggests that he did not really care to put a great deal of thought into the project.

Švec was suddenly trapped. The competition bureaucrats subjected him to an unending series of official visits to his studio with nitpicks and small adjustments with which Švec really had no choice but to comply. As the delays accumulated, it became clear that a simply large monument wasn’t enough; it would have to be gigantic. In fact, what started as a napkin sketch morphed into the largest monument to Stalin anywhere in the world, and the largest group statue in Europe.

It would represent Stalin at the front of two lines of figures, the ones on the left representing the Soviet Union, and on the right, Czechoslovakia. It was to be more than 15 meters high and 22 meters long. Alone, Stalin’s head would weigh 52 tons; the entire work, 17,000 tons. A team of over 600 people, artists, builders, stonemasons, were employed working on the monument. With an understructure of reinforced concrete and an outer cladding of high-quality Czech granite, it would be monument built for the ages.

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Сталинский закон. Пётр Киричек, дуэт с С. Хромченко

The unfortunate Švec probably knew that he had given birth to a monster, and entertained doubts that it could ever be constructed. He believed, perhaps hoped, that not enough high-quality granite could ever be found, but eventually, matching granites were found in two places. At the time, no crane existed in Czechoslovakia that could manipulate such massive pieces of stone, and so German „Panzer“ tanks, spoils from the war, were used to move the stone blocks. Pressure from the Kremlin seems to have been strong. To accommodate the transport, roads into Prague had to be widened, and bridges strengthened, all at great expense.

The construction phase began in earnest on 25 February 1952, an official holiday called „Soviet Army Day“, when the first blocks of granite were laid. Stalin was dead within a year, but the work, of course, continued. It was too late to back out now. Švec apparently became increasing mortified at his involvement in the project. Once the small napkin sketch was enlarged to such epic proprortions, its deficiencies became glaringly obvious. Švec solved some of the design problems by simply putting flags in the figures’ hands to obscure empty surfaces not accounted for in the original sketch. One account states that he was humiliated one day when a taxi driver pointed out that the third figure on the Czech side of the sculpture, depicting a woman, seemed to be reaching for the crotch of the man following closely behind her.

Funeral march in Prague’ St. Václav’s Square on the day of Stalin’s burial, 9 May 1953

The monument was finally dedicated on 1 May 1955. The verdict of Comrade Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev: “Too big, too late.” Local wags dubbed the monstrosity “fronta na maso” – the waiting line for meat, a none-too-subtle reference to food shortages under centralized planning. The artist, Otakar Švec, was not present at the ceremony. He had commited suicide a few weeks before, possibly due to the earlier suicide of his wife, combined with his remorse over the monstrosity he had created, perhaps in combination with the pressure of constant surveillance by the secret police.

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Khrushchev in Prague. “Too big, too late”

The precise date of Švec’s death has seemed, until recently, difficult to pinpoint, and has enjoyed something of the quality of legend. Some sources have casually declared that he died the day before the dedication of the monument on 1 May, as if to state that the sculpture itself was the overriding reason. But the Czech Wikipedia entry on Švec marks the date as 4 April, while the English Wikipedia entry puts it on 3 March, a month earlier. The latter date seems to be a result based on Czech archival sources, uncovered as research for the book Gottland, by Mariusz Szczygieł, published in 2008, and so seems the most credible.

An Eternity of Only Eight Years

On 25 February 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev addressed the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. with a report entitled, О культе личности и его последствиях (“On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”). It was a sharp denunciation of Stalin and the cult of personality that had formed around him. From that day on, the Prague Stalin monument’s days were suddenly numbered. It had swiftly been transformed from a prestigious and very public project into an outright embarrassment to the Communist Party. It would have to go.

Much as they no doubt would have liked to, the Party could not destroy such a massive structure in secret. Instead, they chose to undertake demolition of the monstrosity in a quick, cataclysmic manner using dynamite. In November, 1962, eight hundred kilograms of explosives were used to blow it up. Although the blasts were no doubt heard clearly throughout the vicinity of Letná, on this matter, the Czech press of the time were entirely silent. It was officially forbidden to document it photographically, but some images were created, nonetheless.


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It took about a year to clear the platform of the pieces of the monument that remained after the detonations. The platform then stood embarrassingly vacant for the next 29 years, until the “Prague Metronome” was finally found its place there.

A Reservoir of Public Memory

Another film gives us a look at the what happened after that. Made in 1963, not long after the demolition of the Stalin monument and after all the rubble was cleared away, the film Postava k podpírání (“A Character in Need of Support”), a Czech film that presaged the coming New Wave, was produced in Prague. The filmmakers Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt made prominent use of the vacant platform in a significant image near the end of the film, going so far as to overdub the sound of a man falling down some stairs while carrying a boiler tank (extending the sound from the previous scene) at precisely the moment when the stone Stalin, now gapingly absent, should have made its appearance.


This image seems to proclaim a change of polical weather; a loosening of the contraints, a thaw. The main character’s futile search for the elusive bureaucrat Josef Kilián, in an effort to free himself from the burden of a rented cat, was inevitably described as “kafkaesque” by foreign critics, and marked a fresh tolerance by the censors for implicit criticism of the workings of the state. Freed from Stalin’s stony panopticon gaze that once looked directly into the heart of the city from on high, the sun finally came out. The Czechoslovak New Wave would then blossom, and after it, a Czech Spring, born of optimism at the promise of a new “socialism with a human face.” We all now know of course that that optimism was, tragically, premature.

Interestingly, the public memory of the Stalin Monument has been much more resistant to destruction even than granite and reinforced concrete. There are people in Prague who still say “meet me at Stalin,” instead of “meet me at the metronome.” The site is a reservoir for public memory, and its vibe has been exploited again and again since the Velvet Revolution for politics and publicity. In the early 1990s, the pirate station Stalin Radio operated out of the chambers under the platform. In 1996, an effigy of Michael Jackson was placed there to promote a concert tour. During parliamentary elections in 1998, a billboard promoting Václav Klaus’ candidacy appeared there.

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In honor of Švec’s work, and to commemorate the 51st anniversary of his suicide, the Czech artist Martin Zet in 2006 prepared the exhibition Osud národa - sochař Otakar Švec (“The Fate of a Nation - The Sculptor Otakar Švec”), including images of Švec’s earlier work. The venue for the exhibition was Artwall, the outdoor gallery mentioned in this post, and which lies on the riverside face of Letná hill.

In 2011, as part of the Prague Quadrennial festival, the words “The Tears of Stalin” appeared in six-meter-high white letters in front of the metronome, likely in part a reference to “Stalinovy slzy” (Stalin’s Tears) a brand of vodka sold in Prague tourist traps. Most recently, on the first day of the 2013 parliamentary elections held in October, a huge poster depicting Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, costumed as a Stalin-like dictator, was raised on the site by a group seeking to warn against the threat of a return to a communist government in the Czech Republic.

There was once a common saying in the Eastern Bloc, sometimes stated in earnest, sometimes with bitter irony, “Пока Сталин жибёт, всё будет хорошо” (“As long as Stalin lives, everything will be all right”), which, these days, can be heard paraphrased thus: “So long as the metronome stands, all is well in Prague.” The Prague Stalin Monument is long gone, but none the less, the site atop Letná hill holds a strong political charge, still vivid in public memory, that has yet to dissipate.


Pink postcards 1.

These letters, which we now begin to publish, followed each other for several years. We also want to publish them in the same amount of time, with God’s help, each letter exactly one hundred years after it was sent.

Let us first get to know (at least superficially) the addressee and the sender of these letters.

The girl Antonia Zajac was born in 1896 in a western Galician village, Cieklin, in the valley of the Dunajec.
Her ancestors came from a gentry noble family, who gradually lost all their wealth in revels and on cards. Her father, who found it difficult to bear that he had to work as an employee in their former estate, chose emigration to America instead of constant shame.
From their native place it seemed the easiest to leave from an Adriatic port, which was used for large scale emigration by the citizens of the Monarchy. However, arriving at Budapest, the father died, and the mother with her four children was trapped in the foreign and apparently hopeless city. But Óbuda – the half-agricultural, half-industrial northern suburb of Buda, which will join Budapest in 1873 – did not abandon the orphans, just as she took many other homeless families under her care. She also took under her protective wings the sons and daughters of Hungarian, German, Jewish, Slavic and any other ethnic groups, who were bound together by poverty and a common instinct of staying afloat.
The eldest boy, Feri, became an assistant upholsterer, while his three younger sisters, Antónia (one of the protagonists of our story) was employed in a braid workshop, and Vera and Manci got jobs in the renowned local Goldberger textile factory, the Goli, as it was commonly called.


The other protagonist of our story, Károly Timó (born Szedlák), was born in 1892 to a maiden, Katalin Szedlák, and adopted by a kind-hearted childless shoemaker of Óbuda, Ferenc Timó and his wife, née Anna Hautschild.

Károly Timó grew up in Óbuda, and after elementary school he became an apprentice, and later assistant braidmaker. The workshop of his master Bernát Reiner was in the Terézváros district, in one of the then new houses of the Kleine Johannes Gasse (later János Kis, Piroska Szalmás, now László Németh Street). The young boy had far to go to reach the workshop. The tram was cumbersome and expensive, so every morning, he crossed the Danube with the propeller, and walked three quarters of an hour through the Angyalföld and Erzsébetváros districts.

However, his short weekends were reserved for private life. Their common residence in Óbuda, and their common profession brought the young people close to each other. Clinging together, founding a family also meant a chance to cope with the difficulties of life.

This photo of the delicate, dreamy-eyed Polish girl is a document of the budding relationship, of a modest flirtation.


“On 29. Oct. 1913. In memory to Károly T., from Antónia Z.”

Her eyes are clear blue, this is still suggested by the faded features. The grease-stained and frayed lower part of the slightly worn photo shows that the owner carried with him the picture given to him for a long time.

The studio photos of the young couple already suggest a serious relationship, and a marriage planned in the near future.


But as we know, everything got examined and weighed. The machine was launched. Optimistically, with the promise of the close victory. By the time the leaves fall…

The first pink postcard



Name of the sender: Károly Timó
Address: To the honored Mrs. Antónia Zajác
III. District, Kis Korona Street 52.
Budapest

on the 28th [of August 1914]

My dear son [note the typical form of address of husbands and fiancés to their women at the turn of the century!]
I write these few lines while frying bacon in Szerencs in the morning. What do you say about this surprise! I thought that even as late as on the 10th I will be in Budapest. The journey is quite pleasant, although we go very slow. I slept in Miskolc, now I go to Sátoraljaújhely, and from there to Mezőlaborc [in 2014, Medzilaborce, Slovakia]. Along the way we will get a hot meal, because they cook for us. For some 3-4 more days we will be doing well, and then we will start to play soldiers. Embracing and kissing you
Károly

My greetings to your mother and sisters, and to my parents.


[The first postcard was written along the way to the front. A nice soldier-playing is in view!]

Lejos de la vista del mundo



Habíamos dejado el coche bajo los árboles, justo pasada la señal que dirige a la iglesia. Unos árboles grandes. Una reja. Piedras.
A la izquierda, una casa desde donde avanza un hombre joven.
– You want to visit the church, maybe. I can open it for you.
Anda algo encorvado, el rostro enrojecido por el calor. Nos da la mano. Un joven en camiseta de un azul desvaído, calzón corto de flores y zapatillas de plástico azul.
– I’m the priest, even if I don’t look like one.

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El pueblo de abajo está desierto, ni una cara en las ventanas, ni una sombra, ni una voz, ni un perro que ladre o venga a hacernos zalamerías. Un gato huye al acercarme. Trenzas de ajos y cebollas oreándose en los porches, cántaras vacías de leche. Varias esquelas pegadas en un poste. Y, como por un repentino sortilegio, dos tractores se cruzan a toda velocidad ante mí antes de desaparecer, más allá.

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Caminamos detrás del sacerdote. Tenemos que subir unas escaleras, franquear la cancela en el muro de piedra seca, dejar atrás los pinos y los tilos que doblan sus ramas para encubrir lo que debe permanecer oculto. Durante siglos la iglesia de Borač se ha ocultado así al mundo, camuflada por el risco que se alza tras ella, una piedra entre las otras rocas.


¿Lo cree? Sí, dice, él está seguro; había un pueblo allí arriba, una ciudad enorme, y esta iglesia era su catedral. Era una ciudad próspera, una ciudad pujante, como atestiguan los frescos que contiene — arcángeles con armadura, santos de cara seria, Constantino y Elena mostrando la veracruz, el viejo del Apocalipsis y el Arca de Noé frente a frente, un Cristo Pantocrátor y un Cristo Emmanuel a ambos lados de la puerta que separa el pequeño atrio de la capillita, y al final, el iconostasio con unas pinturas naïves.

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Pero ¿la ciudad dónde estaba?
— Up there, you see, all these rocks — the city was there.

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¿Que si hay ruinas ahí arriba? Duda.
Claro, ruinas, no hay más que ruinas, no se ve nada más. Sí; una vez subió a verlo, cuando llegó aquí.


Nos muestra una pila de rocas, cómo los acantilados recortan la silueta de una fortaleza encantada en el cielo, el deslizamiento de tierras que ha borrado el camino hacia la ciudad muerta; y pienso en todas esas ciudades engullidas por las aguas — la de Ys bajo el mar frente a la costa de Bretaña, Kitej bajo el lago de Svetloyar, ciudades donde sólo las almas puras pueden oír aún sonar las campanas. Borač, en la Serbia central, una ciudad disuelta en el aire, convertida en roca a fines del siglo XIV, en medio del tumultuoso avance del ejército otomano, mientras toda la zona aledaña era abandonada por la población en fuga.
¿Lo cree así nuestro joven sacerdote, perdido en su desierto?
— The city was up there, see.

Teníamos que partir.
Al sentarnos de nuevo en el coche, una última mirada a nuestro alrededor, y allí, a nuestras espaldas, surge otra ciudad oculta por la hierba crecida. Ni una sola piedra de este cementerio que no se remonte a siglos pasados​​, ni una tumba que espere a los habitantes del pueblo de abajo, ni una cruz que no esté convirtiéndose en acantilado.

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Hidden to the world


We stopped the car under the trees, just after the sign indicating the church. Large trees. A grid. Stones.
To the left, a house, from which a young man steps forward.
— You want to visit the church, maybe. I can open it for you.
He walks with a slight stoop, his face is flushed from the heat. He shakes our hands. A young man in faded blue T-shirt, flowery shorts and blue plastic slippers.
— I’m the priest, even if I don’t look like one.

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The village below is deserted, not a face in the windows, not a shadow, not a voice, not a dog to bark and jump in front of our car. A cat which flees at my approach. Braids of garlic and onions hanging from the porches, empty milk jugs. Death announcements tacked to a pole. And, like a sudden omen, two tractors crossing each other’s way at full speed in front of me before disappearing elsewhere.

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We walk behind the priest. We have to climb the stairs, enter a gate opening in the dry stone wall, leave behind the pines and linden trees which bend their branches as if covering up what must be kept hidden. This is how the church of Borač has been hidden to the world for centuries, concealed by the cliff emerging behind it, itself a rock among the other rocks.


Is he sure? Yes, he says, he is sure, there was a town up there, a huge city, and this church was the cathedral. It was a prosperous city, a powerful city, as the frescoes of the church witness – archangels in armor, saints with serious faces, Constantine and Helen showing the true cross, an elder of the Apocalypse and Noah’s Arks face to face, Christ Pantocrator and Christ Immanuel on either side of the door separating the tiny narthex from the tiny shrine, and at the end, the iconostasis with naive paintings.

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But where was the city?
— Up there, you see, all these rocks — the city was there.

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Are there any ruins up there? He hesitates.
Yes, the ruins, everything is ruined, you cannot see anything more. Yes, he went up there once, when he arrived here.


He shows us the pile of rocks, the cliffs that draw the contours of an enchanted fortress against the sky, the landslide that closes the path to the dead city, and I think of all those cities buried under water – the city of Ys under the sea off the coast of Brittany, Kitezh under the waters of Lake Svetloyar, these cities, where only the pure souls can hear the bells ringing. Borač, in central Serbia, a city swallowed up in the air, seized by the rock at the end of the 14th century, in the tumult of the advance of the Ottoman army, while the surounding area was abandoned by its fleeing population.
Does our young priest, lost in his desert, believe in it?
— The city was up there, see.

We are going to leave.
When sitting back in the car, a last look around us, and there, behind us, emerges another city hidden by the tall grass. There is not a single stone in this cemetery which would not date back to past centuries, not a tomb that would wait for the inhabitants of the village below, not a cross that would not turn to the cliff.

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Cachés aux yeux du monde


Nous avions arrêté la voiture sous les arbres, juste après le panneau qui indiquait l’église. De grands arbres. Une grille. Des pierres.
Une maisonnette à gauche d’où s’avance un jeune homme.
— You want to visit the church, maybe. I can open it for you.
Il marche un peu voûté, le visage rougi par la chaleur. Il nous serre la main, un jeune homme en T-shirt bleu délavé, caleçon fleuri et savates de plastique bleues.
— I’m the priest, even if I don’t look like one.

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Le village en contrebas est désert, pas un visage aux fenêtres, pas une ombre, pas une voix, pas un chien pour aboyer et se jeter sous vos roues. Un chat qui prend la fuite à mon approche. Des tresses d’ail et d’oignons suspendus aux vérandas, des pots à lait vides. Des annonces de décès punaisées à un poteau. Et comme dans un sortilège soudain, deux tracteurs qui se croisent à toute vitesse devant moi avant de disparaître, ailleurs.

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Nous marchons derrière le prêtre. Il faut monter des marches, franchir un portillon qui s’ouvre dans le mur de pierres sèches, dépasser les pins et les tilleuls qui ploient leurs branches de façon à masquer ce qui doit être caché. Depuis des siècles, l’église de Borač est ainsi occultée aux yeux du monde, dissimulée dans la falaise qui la surplombe, rocher elle-même au milieu des rochers.


Y croit-il ? Oui, nous dit-il, il en est sûr, il y avait une ville là-haut, une ville immense, et cette église en était la cathédrale. C’était une cité prospère, une ville puissante, les fresques de l’église en témoignent — archanges en armures, saints aux visages graves, Constantin et Hélène montrant la vraie croix, vieillard de l’apocalypse et arche de Noé face à face, Christ Pantocrator et Christ Emmanuel de part et d’autre de la porte qui sépare le minuscule narthex du minuscule naos, et au fond l’iconostase aux peintures naïves.

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Mais la ville, où était-elle ?
— Up there, you see, all these rocks — the city was there.

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Y a-t-il des ruines là-haut ? Il hésite.
Oui, des ruines, tout n’est plus que ruines, on ne voit plus rien. Oui, il y est monté une fois, quand il est arrivé ici.


Il nous montre l’amas de rochers, la falaise qui découpe des remparts féeriques sur le ciel au sommet, l’éboulement qui cache le chemin qui mène à la ville morte et je pense à toutes ces villes englouties sous les eaux — la ville d’Ys sous la mer au large de la Bretagne, Kitej sous les eaux du lac Svetloïar, ces villes dont seules les âmes pures peuvent encore entendre sonner les cloches. Borač en Serbie centrale, une ville engloutie dans les airs, saisie par la roche à la fin du XIVe siècle, en plein tumulte de l’avancée des Ottomans et alors que le territoire environnant était abandonné par sa population en fuite.
Y croit-il, notre jeune prêtre perdu dans son désert ?
— The city was up there, see.

Nous allions repartir.
Au moment de remonter en voiture, un dernier coup d’œil autour de nous et là, derrière nous, une autre cité cachée par les hautes herbes. Pas une tombe dans ce cimetière qui ne remonte aux siècles passés, pas une tombe qui accueille ceux du village d’en bas, pas une croix qui ne se tourne vers la falaise.

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