The Russian Revolution, 100 Years On: Its Enduring Allure and Menace

(Photo: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Violent Communist leaders of the past are still embraced on the far left, where their discredited ideas remain in circulation.

Editor’s Note: This article and its accompanying sidebars originally appeared in the October 30, 2017, issue of National Review magazine.


If there is one line we surely will never hear uttered, even in these times, it is any variant of this statement: “I grant that the Nazis committed excesses, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be said for Fascism.” While there certainly are groupuscules of neo-Nazis around, they do not get a polite reception on campuses, let alone tenure. Watered-down versions of Fascism do not emerge in the manifestos of mainstream political parties in the West. No student is ever seen sporting a T-shirt with a chic Reinhard Heydrich likeness emblazoned across the front.

If the bacillus of Fascism is never dormant, then at least we appear to have retained significant stockpiles of societal antibiotics with which to counter it. It is unlikely that Richard Spencer will address the Conservative Political Action Conference anytime soon. Unlikely that there will be celebratory centennials for Mussolini’s rise to power. And less likely still (despite the cries to the contrary of professional anti-Fascists, who need Fascists for business purposes) that anyone dreaming of a fairer Fascism will reach the White House in any coming electoral cycle.

Yet 100 years on from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, can the same be said about the Communist dream? Only the wildest optimist could say so. For in fact wherever you turn in the world today, it seems that the virus of Communism — in every Marxist, socialist strain — remains alive and well. Conditions for its spreading range from moderate to good.

In June, Russians were asked in an opinion poll to name “the top ten outstanding people of all time and all nations.” Perhaps it is unsurprising that the joint second most commonly given name was Pushkin. Even less surprising that Russia’s national poet should have shared this position with the country’s current strongman, Vladimir Putin. What is more startling for any outsider is that the person whom the largest number of Russians declared the “most outstanding” person in world history was Joseph Stalin. It is true that the man responsible for the deaths (around 20 million, by most moderate estimates) of more people than any other in Russian history has slipped slightly. This year he was at 38 percent, down from 42 percent in a 2012 survey. Yet still he leads the polls. Were the greatest mass murderer in Russian history able to return from his grave today, he could resume power without even needing to fix the ballot.

Of course, if Adolf Hitler remained the most popular figure in modern Germany, the world would be worried. But with the Communists it was always different. An admirer of General Franco who opposed Primo de Rivera is somehow not the same as a Trotskyist who opposed Leninism (a type that remains a staple of the media and academic worlds). Perhaps the 20th century’s greatest remaining mystery is how, between the twin totalitarian nightmares, it remains acceptable to have spent a portion of your life envying, emulating, or celebrating the global cataclysm that commenced in 1917.

It is not surprising that Russians have not reckoned with their past. Five years ago, on a visit to Stalin’s birthplace in Gori, Georgia, I paid a visit to the Soviet-era museum that still stands alongside the tiny wooden hut where the dictator was born and that is still preserved, like a relic. Here you can view the train carriage in which Stalin traveled, a suitcase he used, his writing implements and furniture, and, of course, gifts from the many people who admired him. The last room you enter on this tour of the house is somber and contains his death mask. This whole tour uncritically celebrates the great leader who, from the moment he succeeded Lenin, caused a disproportionate number of deaths of people from this region of his birth.

Then, in 2012, the Georgian authorities were only at the start of what would turn out to be a failed attempt to transform their fawning, Communist-era memorial to the region’s most famous son into a museum of “Stalinism.” At that stage they had made only one half-hearted effort to put the man into anything other than a hagiographical context. After learning about his astonishing rise and rule, and before being presented with a slim volume of his early poetry (“The lark sang its tune / High up in the clouds. / And nightingale joined / In the jubilating song”), visitors were taken under the main staircase. There two rooms had recently been added, to commemorate all the people who died in the Gulag, with a desk to re-create an interrogation cell from the time of his rule. It was like visiting a museum dedicated to the career of Adolf Hitler only to learn at the last moment (after due recognition of the Führer’s skill as a watercolorist) that there had been this thing called Auschwitz. The gift shop sold Stalin wine (red), lighters, and pens. No memorial to the victims of Fascism can finish with an attempt to sell visitors a Heinrich Himmler tea towel.

Anyone hoping that such attitudes would remain confined to what was once the Soviet Union will feel deflated when they look about the rest of the world. Not only because there are still countries attempting to perfect the experiment (North Korea most ascetically, Cuba and China with increasing laxness) but because, away from the scenes of the 20th-century charnel houses, the experiment is barely remembered at all. And where it is, it is not remembered in a negative light.

Last year, the research firm Survation conducted a poll to ascertain the attitudes of young British people in the 16–24 age bracket. The oldest among this group would have been born in the year the Soviet Union collapsed, the youngest around a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The respondents were asked to look at a list of names and say which ones they most associated with “crimes against humanity.”

Adolf Hitler finished first, with 87 percent of young people seeing him in a negative light. Much further down (below Saddam Hussein) came Joseph Stalin, whom 61 percent of young people associated with such crimes, with 28 percent of all respondents admitting that they had never heard of him. Half of young people admitted they had never heard of Lenin. And while 8 percent were ignorant of Adolf Hitler, and therefore clearly as ignorant as swans, it is what happened farther down the name-recognition list that was more alarming.

Fully 39 percent of young people associated George W. Bush with crimes against humanity, and 34 percent associated Tony Blair with the same. Which were higher percentages than for either Mao Tse-tung (20 percent) or Pol Pot (19 percent). The cause is not fellow-traveling but sheer ignorance. No less than 70 percent of young people said they had never heard of Chairman Mao, while 72 percent had never heard of the Cambodian génocidaire.

Were the low numbers replicated for historical figures related to the Holocaust or Fascism, they would cause an outcry. There would be calls for great education drives and the erection of museums and monuments to the victims of Nazism and Fascism. If young people were discovered to know so little about those crimes, every teacher in the land would be hollering about the inevitability of replaying history we do not remember.

But it is always different with the Communist virus let loose on the world a century ago. The figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust is rightly set in our collective consciousness and conscience during our years of education and constantly reinforced through popular culture, political reference, and a whole panoply of institutions devoted to keeping memories alive. Consider the recent film Denial, about the attempt by David Irving to sue the American historian Deborah Lipstadt for accurately identifying him as a Holocaust-denier. Some people might have thought this comparatively tangential corner of Nazi history to have been well furrowed, only to discover that a new generation hadn’t seen it done and that it was understandable and even necessary to see it furrowed again.

But what are the consequences of societies with so little memory of 20 million deaths in the USSR? Or the 65 million deaths caused by efforts to instill Communism in China? If those 65 million Chinese deaths cannot detain us, what are the chances that anyone will care about the 2 million deaths in Cambodia? The million in Eastern Europe? The million in Vietnam? The 2 million (and counting) in North Korea? The nearly 2 million across Africa? The 1.5 million in Afghanistan? The 150,000 in Latin America? Not to mention the thousands of murders committed by Communist movements not in power, a number that could almost seem meager compared with the official slaughter?

Who could survey this wreckage — 100 million deaths in a century alone — and not recoil? Who would stand on top of these 100 million tragedies and think “Once more, comrades, though this time with subtly different emphases”?

Few would do so boldly. Of course there was the celebrated historian Eric Hobsbawm, who remained in the Communist Party even after the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and earned his place in infamy in 1994 by saying in an interview that, yes, if another 20 million deaths had been necessary to achieve the socialist utopia of his dreams, then 20 million deaths would have been fine by him. Irving claimed that 6 million Jews had not been murdered, and he achieved rightful ignominy. Hobsbawm expressed approval of several times the number of Communist murders and subsequently received from a Labour government one of the highest civilian honors.

Yet Hobsbawn’s infamous admission is striking for its uncommonness as much as for its drawing-room barbarism. Commoner, especially among the denizens of the academy in the West, is a form of evasion that goes hand in hand with emulation. This is the process, familiar to anyone who has studied the sewers of thought in which some people seek to diminish Nazi culpability in World War II, by which small platoons of intellectuals fight to divert blame from the Communist cause. They blame a few rogue elements and diminish the body count to form some kind of equivalence of their own with whatever crime of the West they can find within reach.

For decades, America’s public intellectuals have been noteworthy for chipping away at the lower reaches of the Communist canon. It is over the genocide in Cambodia that America’s most cited public intellectual, Noam Chomsky, retains some notoriety. As reports of Pol Pot’s genocide emerged, Chomsky was one of those who wished to ignore the reporters accurately describing what was happening. Instead he relied on Richard Dudman, a source who after two weeks in Cambodia described working conditions in the country as “hard” but “by no means intolerable.” For Chomsky it was clear that, in the wake of America’s involvement in Vietnam, it remained the capitalist U.S.A. that must be focused on as the source of all crimes. Local actors, especially socialist and Communist actors, could be viewed only in a secondary light, and even then with the presumption of innocence, while always and everywhere America met with the presumption of guilt. This is the trick that Irving attempted with the Holocaust and the number of deaths resulting from the bombing of Dresden. American college students are of course not fed — or encouraged to digest — a diet of Irving.

Other prominent intellectuals in the years since have also viewed the “excesses” of the Marxist dreamers as being either a necessary evil or a necessary evil that did not even happen. Some have managed to hold both thoughts in their heads, as Paul Hollander among others has chronicled.

Consider that other present favorite of American students, Slavoj Zizek. This is a man who praised the Khmer Rouge “for attempting a total break with the past” and criticized them for being “not radical enough” and for failing to “invent any new form of collectivity.” Thus the jocular imbecility that constitutes Zizek’s style also reveals its moral imbecility. This is a man who, while praising the “humanist terror” of Robespierre, asserted that the French revolutionary “redeemed the virtual content of terror from its actualization.”

The campuses of the West too often loosen up the politics of the young through such immoral effusions. While the concepts and realities of borders and national identity, which are erroneously believed to encompass a “Fascist” worldview, remain so tainted as to be unusable before any audience of people under 30, the concepts of solidarity, equality, and other benign spillages from the Marxist-Communist worldview remain wreathed in halos. What their exponents mean in practice, what endpoint they seek and what restraints they would ever exercise, never gets asked. But it is in this environ of spilt Marxism that such figures as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren now address their growing young audiences. Were equality (which they press instead of fairness) to have been tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders, then our current conversation would be very different.

But it is not. And amid the ignorance and the deliberate efforts, the presumption remains that while the perpetrators of Fascism always meant to do evil, the inheritors and emulators of 1917 meant to do good. Only accidentally (and even then only arguably) did they do unparalleled harm. All the while, the people whom students might study and revere to correct this view are disappearing into history. While everybody knows the stories of the good anti-Nazis from more than seven decades ago, the heroes of anti-Communism are becoming forgotten. That 2016 poll of British youth found that 83 percent of young people had never even heard of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

‘Well, young people don’t know anything about anything very much” is one response to such findings. But they can, and they do. Alternatively, they can be encouraged to pile optimism on top of ignorance. Consider what the simple iconography and popular history would suggest to an impressionable young mind (what other is there?). It is there not just for anybody who seeks it out — such as at the May Day marches, where banners depicting Lenin, Stalin, and Mao are still carried proudly aloft across the West, all without a single hostile demonstrator (let alone Antifa) in sight.

It is there even for those not hoping to seek it out. Recently, schoolchildren in Cuba gathered to honor Che Guevara on the 50th anniversary of his death. “Be like Che,” they chanted. But it is not only in Cuba. Also this month, the Irish postal service issued a new commemorative stamp to honor the 50th anniversary of the death of the Argentinian Marxist mass murderer. On and on it goes. When Fidel Castro died last November, it was not Kim Jong-un but Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who issued a statement describing the late despot as “a legendary revolutionary and orator” who had “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” About Castro’s skills at running the trains on time, Trudeau remained perhaps self-consciously coy.

So what are they loosened up for, these young people who view the 20th century as having had only one besetting evil? The answer is in the politics bubbling up all around us: the politics at which conservatives are everywhere losing. The politics that got away with its crimes in the 20th century only to reboot itself with a softer, friendlier façade in the 21st.

Suddenly it has become acceptable on the political left, including the parliamentary left, to open the whole socialist possibility up again.

That movement includes people who have consistently chipped away at the top as well as the bottom of the barbarism of their forebears. Nine years ago on a television program in Britain, Diane Abbott, a prominent Labour backbencher in Parliament and a rising star of TV punditry, said in passing that “on balance Mao did more good than harm.” For her, the move away from feudalism and the alleged agricultural advances that Mao instituted made up for the 65 million deaths. Back then Diane Abbott seemed as far from the center of power as the even more obscure backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn. Yet as a result of the global financial crisis and specific local political shifts, Corbyn is now the leader of the Labour party and of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. If there were a general election in Britain today, the polls suggest, he would become prime minister.

This is a man whose consigliere Seumas Milne used to distinguish himself as a staffer at the Guardian by, among other things, working to whittle down the number of people claimed in articles to have been killed by Comrade Stalin. How everyone laughed at Milne’s persistent Stalinism — until his closest political ally took over the party of the Left and made Stalinism mainstream again.

Two years ago, after Corbyn first became Labour leader, his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, stood at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and waved a copy of Mao’s “Red Book” to give the Conservatives some lessons in economics. McDonnell has also called for a popular “insurrection” against the elected government. He later said the stunt was a “joke.” He is a man who has consistently advocated violence in the pursuit of political goals and who would be the second-most-important person in government — the man in charge of the nation’s finances — if an election were called in Britain today. Suddenly it has become acceptable on the political left, including the parliamentary left, to open the whole socialist possibility up again. Labour politicians openly debate the merits of forcibly removing private property from “the rich.”

And so we see revealed the persistence not just of this ideological worldview but of the edifice its modern adherents have been hoping to reconstruct all these decades. Not in Venezuela, or in Cuba, but in a developed modern Western democracy.

How hard they have worked, these people. And how hard they work still. Never leaving a comrade behind. Never demoralizing those who are working towards similar goals. In recent years they exercised considerable energy defending their comrades in Venezuela. Today, as Venezuela’s troubles have burst into everybody’s view, they lament the tiny mistakes they consider their allies to have made along the way. But the result is always the same. As are the excuses. The problem is never the dish. The problem is that the dish has just not yet been perfectly served. How often it brings to mind that famous exchange between George Orwell and a Stalinist. Orwell was eventually able to make his Stalinist concede that there had been excesses and mistakes — the famines, the show trials — in the attempt to attain the state they were striving towards. And finally the inevitable cliché leaked out: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” To which Orwell replied, “Where is the omelette?”

The question lingers still: not just in Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela but now again in the West. How come we are still watching this attempt to make this horrible, bloody recipe, which aims for utopia yet always leaves the same catastrophic, bloody mess?

There are some people who worry that T. S. Eliot was right: “We do not know very much of the future / Except that from generation to generation / The same things happen again and again. / Men learn little from others’ experience.” Perhaps the only way that the next generation will learn the horror of the Communist experiment is if they experience a bit of it. It is a dangerous gamble to take. It was a theory among some on the moderate left before Corbyn took over their party. Instead of being a healthy working organism that could benefit from the careful inoculation, it turned out that the party was deracinated and weak and ended up getting a full-blown outbreak of the virus it was seeking to inoculate itself against. It is a parable that social democrats and conservatives across the developed world should study with caution. One hundred years on from 1917, it turns out that our stocks of inoculation to this virus remain not just low but dwindling.

— Mr. Murray is the author, most recently, of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.


*   *   *


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

by Anne Applebaum

He was difficult, both as a person and as a writer. He alienated people who ought to have been his allies; he refused easy solutions; later in his life, he refused to write easy prose. But when we look back at the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will be remembered not just as an influential author, but as one of the few authors who actually altered the way in which millions of people thought about politics.

Certainly the publication of his short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in 1962, was a major international political event. It was the first account of Soviet political repression to be published in the Soviet Union, and among the first to stray from the grimly optimistic “socialist realist” template that all Soviet novels had previously been forced to follow. The hero was an unheroic, ordinary Gulag prisoner, arrested on false charges; Ivan gets through his day by cheating the system, just like all the other prisoners. The Soviet authorities in the book are harsh, cruel, and hypocritical.

But Solzhenitsyn’s writing also had an enormous impact abroad. In Western Europe, his most influential book was The Gulag Archipelago, a vast compendium of personal recollections and collected survivors’ memoirs that ended, once and for all, the idea that the Soviet prison camps were a minor or insignificant part of the Soviet system. The book forced politicians and intellectuals all across the continent to reassess their attitudes to the USSR, and ended, for many, the romance with Soviet Communism.

Although he made mistakes (and enemies) in his literary career, Solzhenitsyn stood out, even among an exceptional generation of Russian dissidents and writers, for his extraordinary commitment to truth-telling. In his heyday, he wrote prose that helped a whole generation understand the nature of the catastrophe that began with the Russian Revolution and still has echoes today.

— Anne Applebaum is the author of Gulag: A History, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, has just been published.


Arthur Koestler

by David Pryce-Jones

Already making a reputation as a writer, Arthur Koestler was 26 in 1931 when he joined the Communist Party. The Party was to spend the Thirties struggling overtly and covertly for power. Intellectuals had to convince the public of the virtues of Communism. Recognizing that Koestler was a promising catch, the Party arranged for him to travel in the Soviet Union but not report famine and terror, and then to be the correspondent of a British newspaper in the Spanish Civil War. Lucky to escape with his life in Spain and then afterwards in France, he managed to end up in wartime England.

Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, is the lasting monument to his disillusion with Communism. In the run-up to the war, Stalin had organized trials of old Bolshevik comrades who might conceivably prove to be his rivals. How was it possible, Koestler asks, for hardened revolutionaries to plead guilty to trumped-up charges for which they knew they would be sentenced to death and execution? The story is fiction; the context is real. We now have learned that these unfortunates were blackmailed by threats to their families, or simply beaten and tortured beyond endurance.

Koestler’s view of confession as a despairing act of loyalty to the Party nonetheless offers imaginative insight into Communist ideology. Engaging in the Cold War, he was a moving spirit in the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which was then the arena of genuine political debate. He was one among other leading intellectuals who explained, in a polemic with the significant title “The God That Failed,” how they had let themselves be deceived by Communism. A steadfast friend of George Orwell, he famously broke off with Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most influential apologists for Communism in his day. Finally, in the autobiographical Arrow in the Blue (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954), he lit up his whole experience of the totalitarian 20th century with a touch of genius.

— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review.


Vasily Grossman

by Noah Rothman

Tragically few people have ever heard of the man who may have been the greatest Russian novelist of the 20th century.

Vasily Grossman was a travel memoirist, a celebrated war correspondent, a Jew, and an intellectual in the Soviet Union. Embedded with the Red Army in World War II, Grossman crossed the Volga under fire into Stalingrad and followed Soviet soldiers into Berlin. He published the first accounts of the horrors of the Nazi death camps in 1944. Twenty years later, impoverished, ostracized by his colleagues, he died of stomach cancer.

Grossman’s offense was having written the greatest exploration of the human condition since Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Grossman was no dissident; he was a patriot and believed in the Soviet project. Life and Fate is, however, a masterwork of rebellious thought. This expansive novel explored the repression of what he dared to call Stalinist “totalitarianism.” He wrote openly of the gulags and the purge and the forced famine in Ukraine. The book explored the essentiality of individualism, the stifling censorship to which Soviet intellectuals submitted themselves, and the euphoric liberation experienced by those who embraced nonconformity and its consequences.

The novel terrified Grossman’s editors. The KGB banned it in 1961, ostensibly because it placed too much emphasis on the Jews among the war dead. The author protested to Khrushchev himself, but to no avail. Still, Grossman refused to self-censor and so never truly abided the tyranny that surrounded him. In a way, he died one of the few free men in the USSR.

For two decades, his name would not be printed again in the Soviet Union. In 1988, Life and Fate finally found a Soviet audience. It was wielded by the glasnost reformers like a sword, delivering the final blows against a regime that had lost its legitimacy. Vasily Grossman’s legacy is an affirmation: The truth of the human experience will survive despots prideful enough to think they can remake it.

— Noan Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary.


Vaclav Havel

by Roger Scruton

Vaclav Havel was an exemplary political leader who rebuilt his country from the ruins left by Communism. But his lifelong interest in politics was cultivated from a position outside politics. He was distinguished as a playwright and an essayist, and would be esteemed as one of the most significant Czechs of the modern era even if he had never been chosen as president.

Havel was also a philosopher. In his penetrating essay on “the power of the powerless,” he showed the way in which totalitarianism so enters the soul of its victims that it no longer needs force to maintain itself. People forge their own chains and display them obediently to their masters. They live within the lie, since inside the lie things are comfortable and nobody intrudes there save liars, whose motives they share. It is not violence or oppression that holds the Potemkin façade in place, but ideology, which confiscates the very language with which people might describe things as they are.

This essay arose out of a great spiritual transition in Havel’s life, when he attended the trial in 1974 of the Plastic People of the Universe, a group of young musicians who wished to emulate the facetiousness of Western pop groups. Shortly afterwards Havel signed Charter 77 and then went on to found the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. Both acts were an exercise in the power of the powerless — the power of morality, which remains when all other power is taken away, as it was promptly taken away from Havel by his imprisonment.

“The Power of the Powerless” was followed in 1984 by “Politics and Conscience,” and these two essays not only capture in lucid idiom the distinctive experience that gave rise to them but also suggest the remedy, which is the inner discipline of truth. By “truth” Havel did not mean plain speaking, but rather “truth to experience” — the confrontation with the world of life, which his beloved teacher Jan Patocka had taken as the theme for his underground lectures. The message was absorbed throughout the Communist world and inspired the revolution that was finally to tear the mask of ideology from the face of Europe.

— Mr. Scruton, an English philosopher, is the author most recently of On Human Nature.


Leszek Kolakowski

by Radoslaw Sikorski

Leszek Kolakowski’s generation of Central Europeans was so traumatized by the experience of mass murder during the Second World War that, to some of them, fascination with Communism came more naturally than did a return to bourgeois normality, which was in any case impossible. Kolakowski succumbed to the Hegelian bite and joined up, but was too intelligent to remain faithful for long. The contradictions between the theory and the practice were too glaring. He tried to keep alive the spirit of the anti-Stalinist 1956 “thaw” that, under Wladyslaw Gomulka, promised liberalization but degenerated into national Communism.

By the early 1960s he was an internal dissident; by the 1970s, an exile. It was in exile that he penned his magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. His chief insight — and, coming from him, it was devastating for Marxist sympathizers in the West — was that Stalinism was not an aberration, but the logical consequence of Marxism as applied by a nation-state. If, as he argued, human beings — rather than impersonal forces — made history, then you can create the Communist nirvana only by applying mass terror. For the post-war generation of Western left-wingers, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Kolakowski’s arguments, were important milestones on the road away from Soviet-style socialism.

The union of workers and intellectuals that Communism promised to consummate instead became the force that broke it from within. Kolakowski was the foreign representative — some say the instigator — of the Committee of Assistance to the Workers, created in 1976 in Poland after food riots were brutally suppressed. He is also credited with the idea of fighting Communism by means of demanding a genuine trade union. It was certainly from the alliance of disillusioned left-wingers and Poland’s Catholic mass movement that Solidarity was born in 1980: another nail in Communism’s legitimacy. When it turned out that the working class, far from being represented by the Communist Party, actually preferred the Party’s detractors, the system could be maintained only by brute force, which sufficed for one more decade.

Leszek Kolakowski ended up at All Souls in Oxford, a feudal institution in more senses than one. He lived to see his ideas triumph and Communism collapse. For two decades, he was an important voice for democratic liberalism in Central Europe and beyond. Free Poland flew his body back to Poland in 2009 by military plane to a state funeral. A Catholic one.


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