The Man Question. Loves and Lives


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The Man Question. Loves and Lives
in Late 20th Century Russia

Anna Rotkirch: Lecturer in Women's Studies
Christina Institute - Helsinki – Finland

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Anna Rotkirch: The Man Question. Loves and Lives in Late 20th Century Russia


"Again your presentation started by stating what we did not have: there was no sexual revolution, there was no public discourse on sex, I'm sorry but it already makes me sick". Petersburg sociologist Elena Zdravomyslova. 

“Sex...what’s that? What we were always doing or something new?”

Comedian Mikhail Zhvanetskii, quoted in Engelstein (1992b, 786).

The velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s are said to be the first in history that were not guided by any utopian visions of a better, more equal future. On the rhetorical level, post-socialist Russia wanted to live ‘normally’, ‘like everybody else’ (in the West). Certainly, the neo-liberal theories formally guiding the Eastern European transitional economies were part of a particular ideology, including an ideology of human beings, human freedom and family relations. But these ideologies tend to be propagated as the absence of ideologies or state interference. Similarly, the return to intrinsically ‘Russian’ traditions eclectically favoured by communist and national-chauvinist groups in the 1990s was mainly defined in opposition to the too emancipated Soviet or too liberated Western woman. Questions of women’s and sexual liberation had been on the top agenda of the Russian intelligentsia from the early 19th century until the 1920s. Now, they were assigned a subordinated role in the state project of post-Soviet Russia.

 The absence of overarching, declared emancipatory projects has not prevented, but served and facilitated, re-arrangements of gender relations in Russian society. It has concealed, but not prevented perceptions of gender and sexuality from being at the core of numerous political, professional and personal conflicts. This time the most drastic changes have concerned men and masculinities. As the ‘woman question’ defined the end of the 19th century, what could be called the ‘man question’ was a driving force in the social and cultural dynamics of late 20th century Russia.

 This book is about sexual and family life in Soviet and post-socialist Russia. It ranges from post-war Soviet society through the so-called era of stagnation in the 1970s (which will emerge as just the opposite in sexual behaviour) and the era of the public sexual revolution in the 1980s-1990s. It is a contribution to the social history of the vanishing world of real socialism and an inquiry into the dynamics of gender and family relations in Russia today. I will not traced the debates about Russian masculinity discursively, neither can I predict how the ‘man question’ will be answered. Instead, I want to detect the everyday practices and gendered constellations from which it has arised.

 The time is gone when revealing the injustices and complications of Soviet everyday life had an informational and shock value of its own. I do not want to write about what the Russians ‘lacked’ (although, as the above quoted frustration from a close Russian colleague shows, the risk is constantly present). Through the life stories and insights of autobiographies written by so-called ordinary people, I want to discuss what there was. The sphere of everyday sexual practices is taken as a case for analysing the patterns of social development in late Soviet and new Russian society. It is also a case for extending our theoretical understanding of the relationships between human bodies, practices, and discourses. The Soviet experience offers us one of the best arguments for not reducing everything to linguistic practices. Were that the case, the Russians would indeed have been doing “something new”, as Mikhail Zhvanetskii puts it in the quote above, and very exotic, in bed.

Framing questions: gender traditionalism and the semi-public sphere

From the mid-1930s, the Soviet regime banned most kinds of discourses on sexuality - whether educational, entertaining, pornographic or philosophical. Notably, the Soviet Union had no ‘sexual revolution’ in the 1960s similar to that in the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were only minor changes in the sexual policy and ideology of the communist regime. This constellation served as my point of departure: What happens in everyday life when a certain sphere of life - sexuality - is practically banned from public discourse?

 I have dealt with this initial framing question in two ways: by asking how sexual behaviour and morality changed compared with official ideological norms and how the structure of sexual cultures was affected by the prohibition of public debate and thus any negotiated, general consensus.

 Related as they are, these questions led me in diverging directions. The question about behaviour and morality led me straight into the ‘emotional economy’ (Näre 1995) of the Soviet Russian families and everyday settings. It guided me to the relations between two sexes and three generations, and between declared ideals and a more pragmatic morality. I started with the common assumption that despite the seemingly egalitarian rhetoric of the Soviet state, everyday gender relations were more traditional (read: pre-modern) in Soviet Russia than in contemporary Western societies. This thesis of gender traditionalism of course included sexual relations as well. As I became more and more immersed in the autobiographies, which constitute my primary material, the claim of traditionalism seemed increasingly puzzling. Certainly, the Russians sometimes followed the changes in the sexual behaviour of the Finns with a neat 15-20 years of time lag. But in some respects the Soviet experience led to more radical (in the sense of anti-traditional) behaviour. For instance, a grandmother could advise her daughter to get a divorce and become a single mother.

 This radical side of Soviet family life evidently had to do with the broader context of social and economic policies. Relationships between men and women were built on an economically different basis in state socialism than in capitalism. Social hardships - from wars and famine to the notorious lack of living space - put additional pressures on marriages. As a consequence, the Soviet heterosexual couple was in several ways more fragile than in prosperous and capitalist economies. Although in line with Friedrich Engels’ original prediction about families under socialism, this development was an unintended and much belated consequence of Soviet state policies. Everyday sexuality thus had to be understood against the background of the Soviet family with its weak or absent male breadwinner, and its basic structure of what I call extended motherhood. I have named the social and mental consequences arising from this situation the ‘man question’.

 The expression was first coined by Arja Rosenholm (1999), who shows how the Russian woman question in the 1860s was formulated by men and in many ways articulated male, not female, self reflection. Obviously, I talk about the man question in a different historical context. The man question at the end of the 20th century is often put by Russian women, but also explicitly by the men themselves. Just as the Russian woman question was not only discussed in Russia, the man question is not limited to the socialist or post-socialist space. In many ways, the Soviet experiences of the 1960s and 1970s resembled the uncertainties and parental anxieties, connected with women’s economic independence and full-time employment, that the Western countries have fully faced since the 1990s. Systematic comparisons between the gender questions of the 19th and the 20th century, or between their formulation in Russia and outside it, lie, however, outside the scope of this work.

 By talking about the man question I also wanted to pay explicit attention to the group that, even if representing the ‘first sex’, has been ascribed the role of the ‘second gender’. That men should be explicitly included in gender research is a realization that has turned into practice only during the 1990s in international academic research.

  The same paradox posed itself when I looked at what the authors from Leningrad/St Petersburg included in their accounts of sexuality, or, how the domains of the sexual and of love were drawn. Not only did family and sexual culture seem to be formed by the explicit sexual and reproductive policies of the Soviet regime - the living conditions, the censorship and puritanism, the lack of adequate means of birth control, and the authoritarian and pro-natalist approach to parenthood in general and motherhood in particular. The emotional economy of everyday Russian life also denied sexuality a privileged and unique position. As Svetlana Boym (1993, 157) mentions, neither in tsarist nor Soviet Russia was sexuality thought of as a separate life sphere, “conceived separately from moral, emotional, cultural, and historical elements”. In much of the autobiographical material used in this study, especially in that written by women, other forms of love - between parents and children, or between friends - were described as equally, if differently, important. Again, I was forced to look at my own culture and its exclusive focus on the sexual Couple from the outside. But were the Russian conceptions of love and intimacy more ‘traditional’ than those of my culture - or less?

 My second framing question, the one about the structure of sexual cultures, did not concern gender as much as generational and class dynamics. Several scholars have argued that the late 1970s and early 1980s were a watershed time in Soviet private, family and intimate life. This has been connected with a predominantly theoretical discussion about the ‘second society’ during state socialism (Hankiss 1988) or what has been referred to as the semi-public sphere (Zdravomyslova 1997). I wanted to test that concept with regards to sexuality and on a solid empirical base. Sexual cultures seemed a promising way of approaching semi-public lifestyles and discussing their relationship with generations and the dominant culture. I was also interested in what this could tell us about the relationship between discourse, or articulating sexual issues publicly, and practices.

 I found that, yes, the biggest changes in sexual behaviour occurred in the late 1970s. During that period, conventionally labelled one of stagnation, various and sharply contrasting sexual ways of life established themselves in Soviet society. With the advent of perestroika in the mid-1980s, and especially after the economic reforms of 1991, the already existing subcultures provided the basis for the dominant culture of masculinity, as well as for more marginal cultures challenging them. But this process did not appear as neat as I had expected it to be. The Soviet semi-public sphere did not simply turn into the new public sphere of contemporary Russia. In many respects, the characteristics of the Soviet ‘semi-public’ domain, with its blurred distinctions between private and public, remained. They were especially dominating the lives of young Russians.

Disciplinary affinities

This study belongs to the fields of sociology, social history and social policy, inquiring as it does into the intended and unintended consequences of Soviet reproductive and family policy. It also situates itself in the fields of feminist and gender studies and - to a lesser degree - sexual research. Needless to say, it belongs to Soviet and Russian studies, as well as autobiographical studies. However, the 1990s have witnessed an increasing malaise with the conventional disciplinary and thematical borders of social sciences. Anthony Giddens’ claim that history, sociology and geography are actually aspects of the same megadiscipline is true for many European sociologists of the younger generation, including myself. I would therefore as well place my work in the field - or metafield - of comparative social theory. In the spirit of reflexive social science and the extended case method, my interest is in documenting what is unique and local in order to improve our knowledge of the general. 

 In the West, 20th century culture has put intense - and ceaselessly intensifying, it would seem - emphasis on sexuality. Partly this stems from such ideological currents as psychoanalysis and feminism, partly from the commercialisation and mediatisation of Western societies. Soviet Russia, by contrast, was a non-Freudian, non-feminist as well as anti-commercial culture. Psychoanalysis was repressed and access to any kind of sexually explicit material forbidden or strictly limited. Instead, Russian and Soviet culture has known several intellectual traditions, where sexuality or desire is not seen as the defining and decisive feature of human life. 

 Today, some Western scholars turn to the Russian experiences for alternative views of being human, of sexuality, the body, and subjectivity. Social scientists have looked for possible solutions to the Western (especially US) impasse arising from rigid identity politics (Tuller 1996; Rivkin-Fish 1997; Essig 1999). In the social sciences, the works of major Soviet-era scholars are gradually being translated and integrated into our intellectual heritage. 

 At the same time, Western notions of personhood and sexuality were being rapidly exported to Russia. The Western, bourgeois capitalist view of sexuality as a separate, and privileged, life sphere is now spreading in the Russian middle and upper classes. One genre in my material are stories of identity quests - the search for a fitting sexual and/or psychological identity. Part of them - although a minority - were written in the emancipatory rhetoric familiar from Western women’s and gay movements. This is similar to the way in which Russian research on gender and sexuality, when it was revived in the 1980s and 1990s, appropriated the latest Western academic concepts - beginning with the introduction of the new Russian word gender. As gender studies became institutionalised in the major Russian cities during the 1990s, the anthologies that appeared were almost always devoted to a presentation and rendering of international feminist theory (only during 1998 I counted almost ten such small sborniki). 

 This fascinating, on-going and two-way exchange of ideas would certainly deserve a separate study. In this research, the history of ideas has a subordinated status and is only present in two aspects. On the one hand, it is an ingredient in analysing the autobiographical materials: I pay attention to the categories through which ordinary people in St Petersburg wrote about sexuality in 1996. On the other hand, and more importantly, the Russian views of human development have shaped my theoretical quests. Since the late 1980s, I have followed and benefited from the discussions in the fields of philosophical and psychological Russian activity theory (Rotkirch 1996a and 1996b). In this work, I will refer to the theories of Soviet developmental psychology and activity theory, mainly the schools of psychologist Lev Vygotsky and activity theorist Piotr Shchedrovitsky. My dream and ambition is for a real theoretical dialogue between the best of the Soviet / Russian traditions and the Western-dominated academic world.

 Gender and sexuality has been the focus of some scholarly attention in the fields of mass media, political rhetoric and popular culture (Gessen 1995; Kon 1996; Barker 1999). Still, Russian sexuality has rarely been analysed as part of the everyday and family life. Svetlana Boym occasionally touches the subject in her “Common Places” (1994). Laurie Essig (1999) partly documents the everyday of those who in Russia are called “unordinary” and for whom Essig uses the word “queer”. I will, by contrast, concern myself with “ordinary” love stories. We still lack any comprehensive sociological work about everyday family and love life during late socialism. Scholars have generally paid attention to changes in the public sphere, and have focused almost exclusively on Russian women.  This work looks at the loves and lives of both men and women.

 The Soviet 1970s, usually called the “era of stagnation”, actually was a time of intense fermentation. This has been the focus of an increasing number of publications, mainly by Russian sociologists (s.g. Shlapentokh 1989; Ionin 1997). In my earlier work, I have discussed this dynamics from the point of view of case studies of Soviet psychology and philosophy (Rotkirch 1993; Roos & Rotkirch 1999). This claim has not, to my knowledge, been made on the basis of a large empirical material. And still, one of the annoying truisms of Soviet reality remains its homogenisation, the image of identical homo sovietici forming grey masses in grey cities. For instance, Claus Offe refers to (1996) the “forcibly homogenised societies of state socialism”. While this was true for the structure of the public sphere, it does not apply to the whole of socialist society. 

 I align myself with the sociological and historical schools that have described the rich fibres of the semi-official and private spheres in Soviet society.  If nothing else, the political vicissitudes during Boris Yeltsin’s last year of presidency should convince everyone that in order to understand the problematic structures of public and political life in contemporary Russia, it is important to understand what happens in the circles of family and friends.

Outline of the work

The first two chapters present the method and material guiding this work. Chapter 1 discusses the extended case method in relation to Russia and defines the subjects of research as everyday sexuality and family life. Chapter 2 presents the autobiographies from St Petersburg about love and sexuality that constitute my primary material. It then introduces the three modes of experience that together form the triad of experience, an analytical tool that I use in my readings of the autobiographies.

 Part I consists of chapters 3-5 and gives a general overview of the course of love in the Soviet Russian family. Chapter 3 describes the conventions and practices of romantic courtship and dating. Chapter 4 continues with marriage, childbearing, divorces and second chances. Chapter 5 focuses on the role of women in the Russian family by drawing comparisons with Western theories about motherhood and women’s discontent in the family. The dominant Russian family pattern emerging from this analysis is called extended mothering. The chapter then uses this pattern to revise and extend the thesis of Soviet gender traditionalism.

 Part II is an inventory of milieu and gender differences. In chapter 6, I analyse the transmissions of sexual knowledge in three generations. I argue that the ‘sexual revolution’ in Russia happened in two distinct stages. The by now well-known revolution in the public sphere of the 1980s and 1990s was preceded by the behavioural revolution of late Soviet society in the 1970s. A second special feature of Soviet sexual culture was how it, from the 1960s and onwards, became tied to subcultures rather than generations. Chapter 7 and 8 give examples of such subcultures: how the Soviet middle class dealt with double morality, and how promiscuity and social mobility interacted in the lives of male workers. Chapter 9 summarizes the practical and theoretical consequences of the behavioural sexual revolution, here based on the example of same-sex loves.

 Part III describes the lives in the Wild East of the 1990s. Chapter 10 argues that the monetarisation of family life has affected men at least as drastically as women. As the typical Soviet life course fell apart, the borders of the private and the public became increasingly blurred. The New Russian emerged from what I call the process of anxious masculinization. Chapter 11 describes how naturalization of sexuality served two strategies, that of sexual enlightenment and that of anxious masculinization. It also shows how the emergence of sex as a separate life sphere was resisted in a critique of commercialised and compartmentalised human relations.

The list of the autobiographies collected in St Petersburg in 1996 with their numbers, the pseudonyms used, and the main characteristics of the writers, is at the end of the book. I have also translated the announcement text used in the competition of autobiographies.

Ethical questions

When a  Western - in this case, a Finnish - researcher studies Soviet/Russian people's lives, the perspective is of course that of an outsider. It is also the view of a privileged outsider. The border between Finland and Russian Karelia presented one of the biggest gaps in living standards on the planet, exceeding, for instance, the differences between Mexico and the United States. Finnish and other Western researchers live in a comparably stable social situation, with better salaries and academic facilities than the scholars of the former Eastern bloc. The Soviet experience and post-socialist experiments have lead to shattered lives, pain and humiliation for many Russians, whereas they represent an intellectual adventure for interested Westerners, containing both the nostalgically familiar and the radically new, both their 1950s and 2010s.

 The economic power dimension is accompanied by the power relations proper to the academic field itself. Russian sociologists, whose general intellectual level is certainly not lower than that of scholars in the West, had to enter the international academic discourse on terms established by others. 

 However much I wish to make Russian theoretical achievements ‘speak back’, my own academic training and the basic concepts of research belong to a basically Anglo- and francophone academic discourse. And I write in English, the one and only international academic language at the moment - not Swedish, which is my mother tongue, or Finnish, the majority language of my country, or Russian, the language of my informants and also of some of my most important intellectual insights.

 The power to decide which research questions are relevant has been an acute - if often acknowledged - problem in the field of Russian gender studies. In 1997, I checked a research data bank with presentations of mainly Northern American scholars doing Russian studies. The section of history and social sciences had over 300 names, and I was amazed to realise that almost one fifth of them listed Russian or Eastern European women's issues and women's movements as their topic. If we added Western European research, we can be quite sure to end up with more Western scholars interested in Russian women's issues than there are feminist scholars and feminist activists in today’s Russia. As most of the research is written in English, the people of the former Soviet Union usually cannot read or afford to purchase it. During the 1990s, Russians were the objects of academic colonisation: they represented a new and still quite unexplored topic in the business of academic writing and publishing. At present, even this ambivalent status is in question, as ‘Eastern Europe’ was not perceived of as selling enough, once the perestroika boom was over. 

  I myself belong to this strange group of Western academics. I am not always sure of being able to justify my research theme: often, when travelling to a conference, I think that the money would have served better in the hands of a small Russian NGO. But at least I do think I understand why so many Western scholars ended up with this research subject, often long before it became fashionable. This path, which is also mine, has evidently (and often explicitly) influenced the way in which we try to conceptualise the country's gender landscape, which is why I will try to summarise it here.

  It is the story of a more or less leftist person, usually a woman, who first looked to the Soviet Union as an example of living socialism, or an interesting attempt of women's emancipation. When that illusion dissolved, the scholar had learned to like and love the country and the Russian people. After the Gorbachev reforms began, she was eagerly waiting for a ‘real’ feminism to develop. When the new Russian women's movement did get organised at the end of the 1980s, she often developed close personal and organisational ties (including fund raising) to Russian feminists. Still, Western women were disappointed that feminism remained a marginal political movement that was rejected by most Russian women. 

 Feminism became one of the many unfulfilled expectations the West nurtured about post-socialist societies (Watson 1999, 23). The prevalence of anti-feminist values and practices was understood as the question needing explanation. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became the main field of inquiry together with the negative changes in the situation of women during the social and economic reforms of the so-called transition period. Much less attention was given to the ‘good news’ that many Russian scholars themselves have tried to emphasise: that Russia had several new prominent and even pro-feminist women politicians (Temkina 1996); that the Russian independent women's movement was the most active and well organised of all post-socialist countries and that women's organisations are a vital part of the developing third sector in Russia (Liborakina 1996); or that women in Russia have (literally) survived the transition process much better than the men, whose drastic fall in life expectancy has still not been explained by social scientists. Obviously, the initial expectations of many Western feminists caused their academic attentions to be focused too narrowly.

 How are these economic and academic inequalities present in this research? My work has been part of two research projects, based and financed in Finland and employing Russian scholars for shorter time periods. While mainly financing Finnish scholars, the projects have also provided work as well as educational and publishing opportunities for Russians researchers (Rotkirch & Haavio-Mannila 1996). The interview material and the collection of sexual autobiographies are now archived in St Petersburg and available to Russian scholars (for research based on these materials, see Baraulina 1996; Lagunova 1996; Temkina 1998; Zdravomyslova 1999).

 There is also the ethical question of the interaction and possible exploitation that takes place between researchers and respondents. Autobiographies fortunately represent a form were the latter choose to participate. About one fourth of the participants in the autobiographical competition in St Petersburg have received some monetary rewards for their contribution, either as prizes in the competition, or as author’s fees in the newspaper publications of excerpts from the autobiographies that were organized by Elizaveta Lagunova. Most importantly, many authors stated that they enjoyed and benefited from the process of writing itself. As usual in autobiographical competitions, the writers often thank the organisers for the incentive to write (cf Kontula & Haavio-Mannila 1995). Some wrote in deep despair, “I do not need your prizes, I have to write this ... I am crying as I write” (No. 15). Another woman who was searching for love wondered rhetorically if she was not “perhaps this moment dreaming about being loved by the one who will read these lines...” (No. 23). Yet another, a talented woman with higher education who is nowadays a wealthy housewife (No. 22), wrote in order to “serve our science at least with this modest opus (So it would not be in vain that I once raised so many expectations...).” We also had the authors’ explicit permission for quoting their texts in scientific literature. I have thus not had the feeling of exploiting the respondents ‘behind their backs’. Quite on the contrary, their comments repeatedly provided me with inspiration and encouragement to write.

 In sum, my research is certainly part of the existing economically, socially and academically unequal structures between East and West, but has in my understanding at least not aggravated them.

Intellectual defaults

As always, this research process has been about externalising and distancing one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. Often it occurred to me that it is contemporary Finnish family and sexual culture that needs to be explained as a historical anomaly. The sexual behaviour of Finnish men and women has become increasingly similar since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Today, Finns are even more sexually active and often express more permissive views than Swedes or Norwegians do (Kontula & Haavio-Mannila 1995a). Although I write about Russia, occasional direct comparisons to similar Finnish material will be made. Otherwise, the comparison takes place on the theoretical and conceptual level. As my research material consists of people’s intimate autobiographies, I have thought it appropriate to finish the Introduction with at least a little of my personal background, in order to present my personal reading glasses and highlight my initial intellectual defaults.

 I was born in the middle of the 1960s and raised by educated and liberal parents who believed in (and practised) permissive child rearing, gender equality and sex education. I was the eldest of four children, both of my parents were employed and my father always did at least half of the housework and childcare (while he also held a higher and more time-consuming professional position). We children perceived our father as the more forgiving and nurturing one, while mother was the demanding figure who would never give in and did not like to be woken up at night or disturbed when she had some time of her own. I was raised to think that discrimination of women was a deplorable thing of the past and that there were no crucial differences between men and women.

 After the feminist readings in my teens I also believed that marriage was a hopelessly dated and discriminating institution. At that time, I thought the question of whether to have children of my own would be decided in one way or another, some time in the distant future: I have no memory of any kind of motherhood propaganda or even motherhood talks during my childhood and youth.  The exceptions were provided during my trips to Russia. My family lived in Moscow in 1977-78 and after our return to Finland I regularly went back during my childhood years and early teens to visit my friends from my former Russian school. In the Soviet Union, adults advised me not spread my knees apart while sitting, since I was a girl, and not to sit on cold places, since I should think about my future ability to have children. I was extremely irritated by these comments.

 I was brought up on progressive Scandinavian youth novels about relationships and sex, and until my early twenties I took several things for granted: that there was nothing shameful about being naked or about sexuality (although I explicitly discussed sex only with my best girl- and boyfriends); that people, including myself, may freely choose whether or not to marry and to become parents; that some people are homosexual (although when I had a very intensive relationship with a girlfriend in my late teens and my parents commented that it almost looked like a love affair, I found their remark disturbing and irrelevant); that contraception was the duty and responsibility of both partners (although I actually always found the topic extremely embarrassing or simply impossible to raise in intimate settings);  that women should have access to cheap and safe abortions (which I did not perceive as a moral issue at all).

 Mine was not a typical childhood even in Finland, but such an attitude to sexual and gender issues had become possible in Scandinavia in the 1960s and 1970s, while remaining impossible in our Eastern neighbour. I have later come to revise or at least problematise most of these then unreflected beliefs. Only now do I also understand how exceptional they were, in a global context.

 The Russian autobiographies I have become acquainted with challenged and shifted most of my initial frames of understanding. One person who read a manuscript version of this book noted I take care that the reader would not read only the quotations. But that is one of the possible readings I have wanted to provide and it has my full endorsement. As it often happens when dealing with autobiographies, the researcher did fall in love with practically all the life stories rendered in these pages.


Anna Rotkirch

PhD, lehtori/lecturer
Kristiina instituutti/Dept of Women's Studies
POB 59 (Unioninkatu 38 E, 2 krs)
FIN-00014 University of Helsinki
tel 191 24324 fax 191 23315


Helsinki, August 28- September 1, 2001


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