Mike Agranoff

Blog - 1990

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August, 1990
Tour of the Soviet Union

This is sort of a "Blog Prequel" if you will. Over a decade before I started this Blog, my mother took me on an AARP tour of the Soviet Union. This, as it turned out, was almost the perfect time to go, during the reign of Mikhael Gorbachov, only a couple of years after the country opened up to Western tourism, and a couple of years before the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was the era of Perestroika and Glasnost, when American tourists were like alien visitors to most Soviet citizens. And to us Americans it was like getting to meet the enemy like those First World War Germans and Brits who engaged in a clandestine soccer game in No Man's Land during a Christmas truce.

When I got home I wrote what was to be the first of several travelogues in the form of a letter to my girlfriend Jenny. No photos, for reasons I will explain, but a pretty good read nonetheless

Dear Jenny,

So it seems that this Russian finally saved up enough to buy a car and went to the Lada dealership to plunk down his rubles. "Very well," says the dealer. "Your car will be delivered on October 15, 1998." "In the morning or in the afternoon?" inquires the customer. "Does it make a difference?" asks the dealer. "Yes. The plumber is coming in the morning."

You may remember after the potluck supper in Princeton for the visiting Soviets we attended last May(?), during the question-and-answer session, someone asked what were their first impressions of the USA. And one replied, "The order here." This proved a telling answer. His delight at how well things work here prepared me properly for things not to work there. We landed in Moscow to find only two customs agents tackling the entire planeload of tourists. The bus ride to the hotel revealed two enormous needs of the country: lawn mowers and masons who know how to mix concrete. (It later turned out that the nation's entire supply of both was in Leningrad.) The hotel maintenance corps had not quite divined the operation of their air conditioners or their ice-makers. The Post Office ran out of stamps. The bank ran out of rubles.

All this may sound like complaining. Not so. These are observations. I was prepared to deal with such trivia with good humor and grace, and feel that I handled it pretty well for the whole trip. (Well, almost the whole trip. I do remember, after having been shuttled back and forth between several waiting rooms and holding areas, schlepping baggage through crowds in the Kazan airport, starting to hum "God Bless America" under my breath in wry desperation, and stopping my humming just in time to prevent the entire tourgroup from joining in the chorus and causing an international incident.) In point of fact, most of our trip was relatively comfortable. We ate and slept well, and the toilets worked, which is more than a lot of Russians can say.

The Soviet Union is a land of contrasts and surprises, and often as not, I'd be surprised by the familiar where I'd expected the foreign. Like the riverside beach in Togliatti, where I encountered no less exposed flesh than I'd expect at Far Rockaway or Sandy Hook. Or walking around Moscow looking at the people, I felt I could be in any city in the US (except for the scarcity of black faces, and the fact that few women wore slacks.) Reeboks and tee-shirts with English lettering abounded, and the faces seemed to cover the whole spectrum of what you'd expect to see in the Bridgewater Mall, from the trendy women to the apple-cheeked blond little girls to the wise-ass young punk kids to the business-types.

On the other hand, just as I'd start to feel at home, I'd see something to persuade me that I was in some Third World country trying to put up a bluff. The legions of wizened scullery maids stolidly attacking the vast terrazzo lobby of the Hotel Cosmos armed with what appeared to be home-made whisk-brooms let me know I wasn't in the Baltimore Marriott. At the ready in Volgograd Airport stood a phalanx of biplanes (double-winged airplanes) straight out of a Smilin' Jack comic strip, bedecked with big radial engines, four-blade propellers and non-retractable landing gear, still evidently in active passenger service. The few single-family homes I saw in the USSR looked like they were built 80 years ago, and had not seen a hammer or paintbrush since.

Our tourgroup descended upon Moscow, our first stop, like a flock of arthritic geese on a dried up pond. You may recall that this was an AARP tour that my mom invited me to join. However, age and infirmity notwithstanding, this group was, by and large, better prepared for Moscow than vice versa. We spent the evening deciphering the plumbing, waiting for our baggage (mine finally arrived at midnight:30...while I was in the bath, of course), and learning about Russian money.

Their monetary system is in shambles. The official exchange rate is roughly a dollar and a half per ruble. And indeed, when going to buy something in the hard currency stores, you must multiply the marked price by about 1.5 to arrive at the dollar price. However, when you exchange money at the (state-owned) bank, they give you about six rubles to the dollar. The black market rate is anywhere from 10 to 20 rubles to the dollar.

And the black market is by no means hard to find. The money-changers flock round the tourist busses like vultures at a carcass. The waiters at the hotel, and even (so I heard) the policemen make offers to change dollars for rubles. It obviously pays to make one's purchases in rubles...when you can find something to buy. The lines and empty shelves in stores are no longer news. The Beriozhkas, or hard currency stores do have an ample supply of touristy souvenirs, but I was not interested in the gaudy marioshka nesting dolls or the gaily painted, but absolutely unplayable balalaikas.

I had hoped to encounter some folk music there. My guitar was too big to risk on the plane, but I did bring my concertina in my backpack. (It caused some consternation when the airport security X-ray revealed it as some mysterious and apparently sinister mechanism. But a quick tune for the guards assuaged fears.) The first folk musicians I encountered was in a place in Moscow called "the Arbat", a long pedestrian street full of artists and musicians and dancers and stand-up comics and poets, etc. There I ran into a sextet of acapella singers of traditional folk music from the Moscow region of Russia. Not gussied up in fancy costumes, just a bunch of working stiffs that liked to sing these ancient songs with their crossing harmonies and resolving dissonances, and they were great! I later got to jam some with the band on our tour boat, whose accordion player took a shine to the New England tune, "Shennandoah Falls". I wrote it out for him. Who knows where it will folk-process to in the upcoming years. I also played a little with two folk song-and-dance troupes that entertained us on our journey. Much more professional and slick than the Arbat group, and both very colorful and quite good.

But, my primary assignment on this trip was touristing, and Moscow has what to see. (My 25-year-old memories of High School Russian served me well, both written [I could navigate the subways alone] and spoken, but only to the extent that I could determine where the toilet was, or what time the bus was leaving.) I saw the Moscow Circus (real good!) and did the usual tour with all the usual sights. (Did you know that St. Basil's Cathedral, the classic onion-domed brick edifice in Red Square, is not and never was a place of worship? It is merely a building-sized ornament, albeit a gorgeous one, with no interior!) The Moscow subways are all they're cracked up to be. The stations are absolutely palatial, and resplendent in mosaic, statuary, crystal chandeliers, artwork, etc. They are also immensely deep. An escalator traveling maybe 50% faster than the ones we're used to takes about two minutes for the full journey down. Mid­way through the ride, both ends are so far away that you have no visual reference of horizontal and vertical, and you tend to align your body perpendicular to the line of the escalator, which would pitch you right down the stairs if you let yourself go. The rolling stock is fairly ordinary, but it runs like clockwork. During our Metro tour, the trains ran precisely every three minutes. On a Sunday! The Metro was the first of the four really classy things I saw in the Soviet Union.

After three days in Moscow, we were to fly to Volgograd (nee Stalingrad) for the start of a 6-day cruise up the Volga. It took me a day and a half of massaging their inter-city phone system to finally get in touch with Elena Zoueva, the English-speaking woman from Volgograd that I had met at that Princeton potluck. We arranged to meet on the evening of the day I was to arrive in Volgograd.

Upon our arrival there, I split off from the rest of the group to spend the afternoon wandering around a lovely riverfront park. (All the cities I visited have quite elaborate parks with statuary and flower gardens and granite gazebos and fountains in various states of repair.) Long-standing restrictions on unchaperoned forays by foreigners in the Soviet Union have vanished, and I passed some time waiting for Elena fending off various requests by local urchins for cigarettes and bubble gum and, what was apparently a homosexual come-on by an older urchin. After I established the fact that I wasn't buying any of it, we did settle down to a friendly, if limited and broken conversation with the younger kids, who, upon our parting, presented me with little decorative pins as presents. This is evidently the custom there, as my fellow travelers and I accumulated enough such trinkets to practically sink the tour boat.

Elena finally came to pick me up, and we walked to her apartment, where I was treated to a lovely roast chicken dinner with her husband, sister, and brother-in-law. I wonder what that dinner cost in terms of money and queue-time. We spent the evening just talking, mostly in English with Elena translating, and I fielded a lot of questions about life in America. I tried to be as truthful as I could, but had to make uneducated guesses on statistics involving poverty, crime, drug addiction, and other woes of my country. I guess when folks are hurting, it eases the mind to know that the other side has its problems too. I played a little concertina for them. This visit, and a later one with a contact in Leningrad, were the high-points of the trip for me, and the one-on-one meetings were worth more than all the monuments and churches in Russia. The evening came to a close around eleven, and Elena walked me back to the Motor Ship, Alexander Pushkin, our home for the next six days.

The Alexander Pushkin was the second really classy thing I saw in the USSR. Run, I believe, by the State Tourism Bureau, it was pretty big, with 210 staterooms, 3 decks, and a crew of 75. It was also spiffy. It was built in the late 70's in Austria, and was immaculately maintained. The crew was wiping and vacuuming and polishing and sanding and painting all hours of the day and night, and this boat gleamed! What engendered this pocket of motivation and energy amidst a sea of indifference and shabbiness? Pride in the ship? A martinet captain? Fear of losing a good job with access to tips in hard currency? I don't know. I got to peek in at the wheelhouse and engine room. Neat stuff, also spotlessly maintained. The boat was absolutely silent, and moved at a fair clip. In the six days, we covered almost 1200 miles, including stops for day trips in three cities.

The Volga River is right impressive. The portion upon which we traveled was essentially a series of artificial lakes and reservoirs created by extensive damming. A lot of hydroelectric power is generated by the Volga. There is also heavy river commerce, both passenger and freight, which negotiates the dams through a series of locks. The dams aren't particularly high, maybe 50 to 90 feet, but are immensely long, and the hydro stations and spillways handle a lot of water. The waterway was as much as 25 miles wide in spots, and the shores were, for the most part, uninhabited prarieland, dotted by occasional cities and one or two small hamlets, which, far from being quaint and picturesque, were shabby and dilapidated. I'm told the water is polluted, but it was not so much so as to be discernable to the eye or nose. There are fish; I don’t know if they're edible. The sturgeon and other migratory fish are gone from the Volga as a result of the dams, which were not provided with fish-ladders. A lot of the passenger traffic on the Volga is via hydrofoils, which look like they came out of a 1940's Flash Gordon movie.

First stop: a couple of hours on tiny Devushkin Island. Uninhabited, but set up as a recreation area with a beach, some overgrown soccer fields, and a lot of scrubby wilderness to explore. Wander about. Swim if you dare. (Too chilly for this cowboy, but some of our compatriots wet their shanks.) Shashlik provided for our palates and folk dancing for our entertainment.

Next stop: Togliatti. The Detroit of the USSR. The city is named for the Italian engineer who constructed the Soviet Union's largest automobile manufacturing plant there. The plant continues to churn out the same 1973 Fiat -128 clones that it did when it was built, which infest the country under the "Lada" marque. On last year's trip, the organizers had arranged for a tour of the factory, and someone had fallen and broken a leg. So it was determined that such a tour was too dangerous, and this year they arranged instead a tour of the hydroelectric station for our group. So in the hydro station, someone fell and broke an arm. Next year, maybe the foam rubber factory?

The hydroelectric station was the third classy thing I saw in the USSR. Standing at one end of the building, and gazing down its mile-long length, one is greeted with a vista that looks like some matte background from the '30's sci-fi flick, "Things to Come". The viewer is presented with the immense building lines dwindling to a perfect vanishing point in both directions, and tapering rows of identical Brobdingnagian turbines, one after the other, vanishing into those same points.

The quay in Togliatti was not large enough to handle more than one tour boat, so when one of the Alexander Pushkin's many cousins arrived after us carrying a load of vacationing Russians, they tied up to our free side, and their passengers walked through our boat to get to shore. But those who remained on board both vessels suddenly became aware of fellow travelers from half a world away, both geographically and culturally, standing but a few feet from each other across the rails of the two boats. Tentatively at first, and then avalanching to almost frantic proportions, broken conversations, questions in sign language, calling cards, candy, and gifts began to pass back and forth between the two ships. Standing at the bow and looking rearward, the view of hands stretched from both sides across the rails seemed somehow symbolic, and brought tears to my eyes, even as it does now when recalling and writing about the incident.

Ulyanovsk next. Lenin's birthplace. Russia is Lenin-crazy. He is their patron saint. Everywhere there are statues, obelisks, fountains, squares, streets, buildings, institutes, cities, museums, subway stations, and every other conceivable thing named after Him. Went to the house of his childhood, which has been converted into a museum. They have collected everything concerning his childhood that they could lay their hands on. To the point of being ridiculous. To the point where, in this house, forever enshrined in perpetuity, is preserved Vladimir llyich Lenin's younger brother's for Chrissake butterfly net. I kid you not.

We did the mandatory city tour by bus. Stopped at a newly reopened Russian Orthodox Church doing a land-office business in mass christenings. 20 or 30 people from newborns to adult being christened in a joint ceremony. Utter pandemonium, what with squalling babes and intoning priests and everyone's uncles and their cousins and their aunts. I felt a little uncomfortable, being a part of a pack of intruders armed with Insta-matics and camcorders invading what should have been a solemn and personal ceremony of faith. The priest, (a young hippie-type with long hair and beard), however assured us that folks were proud to have observers. According to one of our tour guides, much of the resurgence of church activity is more a matter of cultural heritage than religious belief. Five years ago, I might have taken such a statement from an Intourist guide as mere parroting of the Party line. These days, I'm not so sure. The guides were all making pretty inflammatory statements concerning governmental policies past and present, and frankly discussing and pointing out failures in their system. Glasnost is real.

Ulyanovsk is also my paternal grandfather's birthplace. My mom, who, as you may recall was the one who invited me to come with her on this trip in the first place, had wanted to stop at City Hal! to get a copy of his birth records for the sake of my late father's memory, and for his sister in the Bronx. She even made a $40 phone call direct by satellite from the boat back to the US to get further information on his patronymic and address, but we all overlooked the fact that our stop in Ulyanovsk was on a Sunday, and the city offices were closed. C'est dommage.

Entertainment on the boat consisted of some Russian lessons, a couple of "cultural lectures" (not as deadly dry as I feared, but not exactly Trump Castle fare either), and a 4-piece band that did night-club style jazz and pop stuff you'd expect to hear in a lounge in Duluth. They were real good musicians stuck in Musicians' Hell, night after night playing "Feelings" for rich old American tourists. Electric guitar, fretless electric bass, saxes, electronic keyboard, and drums. Also, balalaika, accordion, and spoons when they went into "folk" mode.

But the social high point came the last night of the cruise with the talent show. It was pretty dreadful for the most part. I did OK with a song and a tune, but the grand finale was a performance of the famous dance from "Swan Lake". You know, the one with the four ballerinas dancing in a line with linked crossed arms? Except this particular rendition was done by four grossly overweight old men in tutus and Adidas who had never danced a step in their lives. It was particularly silly, and I liked it a lot. It helped to partially redeem in my eyes two of the members of the troupe, who otherwise had been our group's requisite Ugly Americans. Unbeknownst to us at the time, two days later we were all to see the Leningrad City Ballet's rendition of "Swan Lake". When the 4-swan sequence started, our entire section of the audience, 150 strong, fairly seethed with suppressed titters and choked laughter, much to the consternation, I imagine, of the poor girls on stage, who must have all desperately checked their costumes the moment they got off to see if anything was coming undone.

Not much to say about Kazan, our final city of the cruise. With the exception of a local tour guide named, honest to God, Mikhail Gorbachev (no relation), this burg is even less ready than the rest of the country to leap into tourism as a major dollar producer. An attempt was made in what appeared to be a recent interior paint job on the turn-of-the-century hotel where we ate, and was attractive in a gaudy gilt-molded rococo sort of way. But whatever they painted over smelled of mildew, and those of us unfortunate enough to venture into the toilets emerged blanched and gasping as if they had just escaped from the lair of Cthulhu.

More busses, more lines, more interminable shuffling through airport holding pens, yet another Aeroflot jetliner with peeling-up carpets (I wonder what their engine and airframe maintenance is like.) and stewardesses from the Army Mess Corps School of Service Etiquette, and touch down in Leningrad. Where I found the fourth and final classy thing I saw in the Soviet Union: Leningrad.

Leningrad could be in a different country than the rest of my trip.  It is the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life. It is a jewel of a city. Most of the architecture is 17th and 18th century style masonry done in real or simulated large blocks, parged over, and painted pastel with white highlighted details around the windows, simulated columns, white painted mortar joints, doo-dads, cornices, friezes, etc. The latitude is about the same as that of Anchorage, Alaska, so in this early July season, sunset was around 11:30 PM, and sunrise around 4 hours later. And the low-angle sun strikes those pastel walls perpendicularly, making them especially brilliant. The city is crisscrossed with the waterways and canals of the Neva River delta, so vistas across water with gilt onion-domes and spires abound.

Leningrad, however, is not without its failings. This metropolis of 5 million, third largest in Europe, does not have a potable water supply. As a result of some water engineering project a few years ago, they got a bug in their water that they have not been able to get rid of. So you buy bottled water from Ireland in the dollar-shops (or brush your teeth with vodka), and hope they boiled the water they used to wash the vegetables and make the ice cubes. (Boiled ice cubes?!) Yes, the ice-makers work in Leningrad.

The black-marketeers and money-changers are a little more serious and, to my perception, a little more sinister in Leningrad. They seem less ready to take "no" for an answer. They have also, evidently, sent the hoards of kids trading souvenir pins for bubble gum and cigarettes back home to their mommas. Hustling the touristas is a big boy's game in Leningrad. I was told that violent and even organized crime is rearing its ugly head there. People remove their wind­shield wipers when they park their cars for fear they will be stolen. (On the other hand, the subways, perfect targets for vandalism and violence, are safe and unsullied. Different strokes...)

We visited the Hermitage, the world-renowned museum of art and antiquity. It occupies the former palace of the tsars. Completely. It is IMMENSE. The statistic bandied about is that if you wanted to see everything, and spend a minute at each exhibit 8 hours a day, it would take you 8 years! It is also Grand-Central-Station crowded. You are presented with jeweled urn after brocaded gown after gilt sword after hand-painted china set after Faberge egg after carved ceiling after crystal chandelier after inlaid floor, all the while trying to stay with your group of 30 against the tide of another group entering the room you're trying to leave. (The Russians have a curious habit: If there is a double door, one half will be locked. If there is a series of three double doors abreast, five halves will be locked. Guess which one is open. Russian roulette?)

After half an hour, I OD'd on opulence and humanity and headed back to the hotel by public bus. Fare is 5 kopeks, that's either 7-1/2 cents or 1 cent or 1/4 cent, depending upon where you got your kopeks. I boarded the bus, "nickel" in hand, to find the driver in a glassed-off cabin. Where do you pay? I watched people getting on, getting off. No money changed hands. Finally, in my broken Russian, I asked a woman passenger. She laughed, reached into her purse, and came up with a roll of tickets, which evidently must be bought in advance somewhere. Honor system. She tore off a ticket, inserted into a device mounted on the wall of the bus which mangled it some, and handed it to me, refusing any money. She very solicitously made sure I didn't miss my stop.

The bus route was rather circuitous, and I got to see some of the backwater sections of the city where the tourists don't go. Perhaps not so much glitter and paint as along the boulevards and prospekts of the tour-bus routes, but still well maintained and relatively neat. And everywhere, signs of ongoing maintenance: scaffolding around buildings, street repair work, restoration of historic facades (although there was never a workman to be seen at any of these sites.) At one stop in an industrial area, a bunch of people got on, and amidst them, a little black dog. Apparently, pets are allowed on public transport. A little later, as the bus was approaching a stop, I heard a "Yipe! Yipe!" from the back. The doors opened, and I caught a glimpse of the dog nonchalantly trotting away. Now, I cant swear that there wasn't a person leading it somewhere out of my range of vision, but for all the world, it looked to me as if the dog had taken a bus trip. I wonder who punched its ticket.

The next day, we took in Petrodvoretz, the tsar’s summer palace. This was a museum more to my liking. It was not quite so large (but just as grand) as the Hermitage, but the rooms were set up as they were used in the tsars' day. So, for example, instead of a display of Wedgewood china in a glass case, the china was displayed set up on the dining room table, along with the crystal and silver, making the whole more meaningful to me.

The building had been deliberately and maliciously reduced to a shell by the Wermacht during World War II. ("The Great Patriotic War" in Soviet parlance. Our tour guide, however, made a deliberate point of referring to their enemy as "the Fascists", not "the Germans", indicating a surprising rejection of their cultural enmity with Germany.) The restoration is remarkable, but not nearly complete. The contents had been removed to the Ural mountains before the Nazis had arrived, but the interior of the building had to be entirely redone based upon photographs and memories. Quite a project. It would make a great documentary film subject for some enterprising cinematographer.

Petrodvoretz is about a half hour hydrofoil ride across the Baltic Sea from Leningrad, and an hour's bus ride back. On the way back, we passed some of the new section of the city, consisting mainly of endless clumps of those awful faceless rectangular multi-story apartment blocks built by incompetent masons especially imported at great expense from Moscow or something. Very reminiscent of public housing projects in New York City, except that in New York, the buildings get beat into the ground by their residents. In Leningrad, they fall down of their own accord.

That evening, my last in the Soviet Union, I made contact with my second private citizen. I had gotten his name and address from a mutual friend at the end of June, and wrote to him immediately. My letter had not arrived some two and a half weeks later, so my call to him came out of the blue. Nonetheless, he was all too glad to entertain me, a total stranger, in royal fashion.

Igor Agarmirzian is apparently one of the "privileged" class. He is a computer programmer, a commodity scarcer even than computers in the Soviet Union, and so merits some serious perks. He owns a car and has traveled to the US. He arranged dinner for the two of us at a restaurant of positively decadent (by Russian standards) aspect called Tête-à-Tête. This is a private enterprise run by a Leningrad playwright, and is apparently the preferred haunt of the local intelligentsia: artists, writers, actors, etc. Locked door, admittance by appointment only, coat-and-tie. Inside is the living room of a private apartment, decked out with elegant (but uncomfortable) tables for two, a tasteful lamp suspended from the ceiling over each table, a grand piano which gave forth nondescript dinner music under the hands of a proper but dour old gentleman, dinnerware inscribed with the name of the restaurant (Think about the pull required to obtain that in a country where you must wait in line by buy shoes and take whatever size they have in that day.), and the best steak dinner I've had in years. This man is connected! Bill: 25 rubles for the two of us. No tip: just make a donation to a disabled vets organization or something in a fishbowl in the vestibule.

After dinner we went home to his parents for a brief visit. His father, I later found out, is a producer of plays, which perhaps explains in part their large (3-bedroom) apartment. Both this apartment, and Elena's in Volgograd, were very cozy and neat...nice places to be in, as opposed to their less attractive exteriors. I did not meet Igor's wife and kids. I wonder if he's not on the outs with her, what with his world traveling and hobnobbing with celebrity folk musicians from the USA while she's stuck home with the children. One of the cultural lectures on the boat painted a less-than-rosy picture of women's life in the USSR. On the one hand, sexual equality in employment is real, and women and men compete in the workplace on equal footing. However, that equality has not extended to the homelife, and household work, shopping, and child rearing tend to be exclusively the task of the women, with men lending much less of a hand in these chores even than in the US. And these days, with so much time spent waiting in line to buy things, women's free time has been cut to nothing. The divorce rate there is higher than in America. (My extrapolation of these conditions to Igor's personal life is mere conjecture, and has no substantiation in the facts as I know them.)

Up at 6:00 next morning, final packing, schlepping bags, wolfing down breakfast in the half hour allotted between the opening of the restaurant and the departure of the busses, one last assault on Soviet officialdom in the aspect of ruble redemption and customs, one last visit to a Russian toilet, this one smartly equipped with a ping-pong table and rackets (but no balls) in the vestibule, and off for home.

Fascinating trip. Not exactly your stately pleasure dome decreed by Kubla Khan, but a trip I wouldn't have missed. If I am to draw any conclusion from the whole experience, it would be maybe that it ranks with the great tragedies of history that it took a man like Stalin to save his country from a man like Hitler. The legacy that these two archvillains have left on the Russian people has kept our two countries at odds with each other for almost two generations after their deaths, a tragedy all the more poignant considering how similar to us as a people they appeared to me.

I had broken my camera on the very first day of the trip. It flew out of my still-open knapsack as I slung it over my shoulder. So I figured I'd put these impressions down while they were still fresh, and let this be my record of the trip as well as my story to you. I thought about you some during my travels. Miss you, and am looking forward to seeing you again in September.




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