“Exceptional Boon”. The Russian colonization of Tyva: When did it start and how did it unfold?

“Exceptional Boon”. The Russian colonization of Tyva: When did it start and how did it unfold?

Dankhaiaa Khovalyg discusses the main stages of the Russian colonization of Tyva in a joint material by “Beda” and “Feminist Translocalities”

Dankhaiaa Khovalyg is an independent journalist, decolonial activist from the Republic of Tyva and author of the podcast “говорит республика _”. 

“Beda” and the project “Feminist Translocalities” have collaborated to prepare this material. We are currently working on a compilation of research texts that explore the repercussions of colonialism in the Russian Federation, the USSR, and the Russian Empire. With the assistance of local experts, we aim to unravel the fundamental aspects of colonization affecting various regions, including language, culture, religion, ethnicity, economy, and physical resistance. These texts will be published in three languages: Russian, English, and the respective language of the ethnic group being studied.

The subject of “Tyva’s History” at my school was merely nominal, and I barely retained anything from it. Many years later, as I revisited that very same school textbook, I realized that it's not surprising since the history depicted there is also quite superficial. It includes statements about the “friendship of nations”, “mutually positive influence of Russian and Tyvan cooperation”, “long-awaited acceptance into the family of Soviet nations”, and just a few brief mentions of “local excesses”, “arat dissatisfaction”, and the “Case of the Nine”. Something didn't quite add up.

Why did the Tyvan society seek the protection of the Russian Empire in 1914, declare an independent state in 1921, and then join the USSR in 1944? How did collectivization occur in an officially non-socialist state with a history of cattle breeding and private property-based livelihood? What led to the execution of the leadership of the Tyvan People's Republic and on what grounds? If “joining the Soviet Union had an exclusively positive influence”, then why is Tyva, for quite some time now, the poorest region in the country? When did pro-Russian sentiments even arise in the isolated Tyvan society? 

I couldn't find any text that provided satisfactory answers to all these questions. Therefore, after months of studying everything related to the history of the republic, I decided to write this text myself. It is grounded in numerous scientific sources, articles, and research. This text aims to delve into when and how the Russian colonization of Tyva began. There is no longer any doubt that it was indeed colonization. 

Lastly, I want to highlight that the number of Tyvan language speakers diminishes each year. This trend is occurring in a republic where 88% of the population are Tyvans. With each new generation, the use of their native language is diminishing1. Unfortunately, this is evident in my own experience as well.

However, the personal history of one Russified individual is, in reality, a direct result of the colonial policies pursued by the Russian state. This topic is uncomfortable in many respects, especially in the present reality. Yet, it is precisely for this reason that it is even more important. The fact that such an article is written by someone without a specialized historical education only serves to underscore its significance.

I hope that this article will encourage more Tyvan experts from diverse academic fields to explore and write about this topic.

1. The beginning of trade colonization

Modern authorities refer to the year of Tyva's annexation to Russia as 1944 when the leadership of the Tyvan People's Republic submitted the corresponding appeal to the Soviet Union2. However, the reality was that Russians had been colonizing Tyva's land for nearly a century by that point. 

Starting in the late 17th century, Russian merchants began to explore the Tannu-Uriankhai region, which belonged to the Tyvan tribes within the Qing (Manchu) Empire. In 1863, Russian and Chinese authorities reached an agreement for duty-free trade involving natural resources3. Russians traded manufactured products and household items, while the Tyvans paid with livestock, fur, and hides. 

Russians essentially became the primary suppliers of essential goods for the Tyvan population. This trade arrangement was particularly advantageous for the Russians, as the Tyvans had a limited understanding of pricing. According to Russian terms, a Tyvan could trade an entire bull for a single axe or exchange a valuable sable pelt for a standard rifle.

As trade in the Tannu-Uriankhai region evolved, caravans started to traverse the area, and Russian trading posts were established. Livestock obtained through trade was transported beyond the Sayan Mountains by traders and resold at significantly higher prices. However, the challenging transportation conditions meant that crossing the mountains wasn't always feasible. Consequently, the Russians began buying land from local residents, settling on it, and establishing their own livestock farms in villages near the trading posts. The presence of Russian settlers in the trading landscape quickly solidified — they prospered and became established on Tyvan land.

Certain goods among the Tyvans were tied to specific seasons; for instance, they could only trade with furs during late autumn. When they couldn't make an immediate payment, rather than waiting for the appropriate season, Russians would extend credit and provide goods. They often took young livestock as a form of interest for the delayed payment. 

These two factors, namely the Tyvan’s limited understanding of the true value of goods and the widespread use of credit-based trade, enabled Russian traders to quickly establish significant financial control over a considerable portion of the local population. This led to the ruin of many Tyvan families' livelihoods. 

Russian merchants, backed by Russian border authorities, collected debts from the Tyvans. This gave merchants considerable power, allowing them to even take more than necessary from a Tyvan debtor if they desired. Collectors could transfer the debt to relatives or neighbors without confronting the debtor directly. Geographer Grigory Potanin noted in his essays about his journey to Mongolia that “Minusinsk merchants turned trade in Uriankhai into robbery”, and collectors who came for a debtor's cattle often weren't aware of the true ownership of the herd, relying on the principle: “As long as it belongs to the same tribe (clan) as the debtor”4.

If the Tyvan people couldn't repay the interest on the debt, they would work it off with their time and labor. For instance, they would tend to and care for the creditor's livestock, which they had bought from the Tyvans themselves at low prices. Eventually, this livestock, bought from them for a pittance and raised by them to pay off the debt, would be transported and sold5 at much higher prices beyond the Sayan Mountains. The profits for the Russians were so substantial that by the beginning of the 20th century, the number of villages, settlements, and trading posts they established in the Uriankhai region exceeded two hundred6

The relationship between the two peoples was intricate. Over time, the Tyvans recognized that the Russians were benefiting far more from the colonization of their land, prompting them to resist. They periodically sought retribution against traders by attacking trading posts, looting and burning them, poisoning crops and pastures, and stealing livestock. One of the earliest well-documented cases of the Tyvans' response to exploitative Russian trade involved the merchant Veselkov; in 1867, locals set his goods warehouse on fire. In retaliation, the Russian government deployed troops and compelled the Tyvans to compensate for the loss with an amount exceeding the actual value of the goods7. In 1876, there was the murder of collectors of the prosperous merchant Safyanov, and two years later, Russian merchants' trading enterprises in the Hemchik area were robbed.

With their trade dominance established, the Russians initiated industrial colonization, exploiting gold deposits and other valuable minerals, developing industry, and built a salt plant.

2. Request for Russian Empire's patronage

In 1912, the Xinhai Revolution took place within the Qing Empire, leading to the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the dissolution of the empire. Consequently, the Tyvan people gained their freedom from Manchu-Chinese control. In the modern history textbooks of the republic, this period of 165 years is characterized as the “most challenging colonial era in the Tyvan people's history.8 Interestingly, the Russian colonization of Tyva is portrayed only in a positive light on the same pages. 

Having finally rid themselves of the weight of colonization by Manchu feudal lords, a dominance that had persisted for over a century and a half, Tyvans found themselves scattered. The Tyva region was divided into , each governed by local leaders known as , some of whom had historically interacted closely with Russian settlers9. In the same year as the collapse of the Qing Empire and Outer Mongolia's declaration of independence, representatives of power from the eastern kozhuuns convened a congress. During this event, noyons such as Kombu-Dorju, Agbaan-Demchi, and Buyan-Badyrgy composed and sent a request to the Usinsk Border Administration, directed to Nicholas II, seeking his patronage over the Uriankhai region10

Two years later, in 1914, Nicholas II granted their request. Under the safeguard of the Russian Empire, the Uriankhai region became part of the Yeniseysk Governorate, and the newly established settlement, aptly named Belotsarsk, became its capital. In accordance with the metropolis's directives, approximately a dozen Russian schools were established, the development of the Ulug-Khem coal basin commenced, and construction of a road from Minusinsk to Belotsarsk — the — began. The expansion would have maintained its swift momentum, but in 1917, it was halted by the socialist revolution.

3. Backing Soviet Authority and the Assertion of Independence 

The revolutionary events in Tyva unfolded rapidly. In March 1918, the Uriankhai Council of Workers' and Peasants' Deputies proclaimed their establishment of power over Tyva's land. Just a few months later, representatives from both the Russian and Tyvan populations convened a congress where they ratified a self-determination agreement. Soviet rule in Tyva crumbled, and news of its self-determination11 piqued interest from all corners. 

In a brief span, three factions entered Tyva: the forces under Kolchak, Mongolian troops, and Chinese units. Following armed clashes12, the groups provisionally divided Tyva into three occupied sectors. Escalating social tension culminated in anti-Russian uprisings supported by the Chinese and Mongols, as well as their local allies. In 1920, Red units led by guerrilla leaders Petr Shchetinin and Alexander Kravchenko entered the region, defeating Kolchak's forces and the Chinese13. The Mongols departed on their own accord, as their country underwent its own revolution.

On August 13, 1921, with the support of the Red authorities, the All-Tyvan Constituent Hural took place in Tyva. A significant portion of voted for annexation to Mongolia, but one of the most influential and respected noyons, the fervent Buddhist and advocate of a pro-Russian course, Mongush Buyan-Badyrgy, intervened. Together with his supporters, he swayed representatives from other kozhuuns toward the idea of state sovereignty14. On the same evening, the hural passed a resolution of independence — the establishment of the Tannu-Tyva People's Republic, free from external interference in internal affairs yet acting under the patronage of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic)15. Mongush Buyan-Badyrgy16 became the , the head of state. 

While the RSFSR's resolution primarily extended support to the new state regarding foreign policy, in reality, Soviet authorities actively engaged in internal affairs as well17. The channel for Soviet authority's influence within the budding Tannu-Tyva state was the Tyvan People's Revolutionary Party (TPRP), established in 1922. Aligned with the recently formed Revolutionary Youth Union, the TPRP emulated methods and structures forged within the USSR. This was bolstered by the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs18

4. “Human Bombs” from the Communist University of the Toilers of the East

During the late 1920s, the first individuals hailing from the who had completed their studies at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, named after I.V. Stalin in Moscow and other cities of the USSR, began returning to Tyva. Austrian scholar Otto Maenchen-Helfen famously referred to these returnees as “human bombs”. His description painted a vivid picture: “Hundreds of young people from the East — Yakuts, Mongols, Tyvans, Uzbeks, Koreans, Afghans, Persians — were educated for three years with the purpose of returning to their homelands and explode everything old”19, he wrote. This era also saw a growing rift in Tyva between the “leftists”, including some revolutionary-minded arats, and the “rightists”, comprised of noyons, bureaucrats, and lamas. 

In August 1928, TPRP held its 7th Congress, during which a decision was made to initiate a comprehensive overhaul of government and party ranks, backed by the International20. At the 8th Congress, staunch Stalinist graduates like Irgit Shagdyrzhap and Salchak Toka emerged as leaders of the party. This gathering set the course for the Tannu-Tyva Republic to embark on a new developmental path that diverged from capitalism. 

The implementation of the decisions formulated at the 8th Congress was promptly undertaken. Authorities led by Shagdyrzhap and Toka, who were allied with the Soviets, introduced a new agricultural tax and enacted a law regarding the separation of religion from the state.  The property of lama communities was expropriated, Buddhist monasteries and their property were nationalized. The process of collectivizing arat farms was initiated. Visiting monasteries by minors was prohibited, while all lamas, shamans, feudal lords, and were stripped of their voting rights. 

Under the slogan “Aryn chazar” (“Down with shame”) gatherings were held where revolutionaries could cut off women's braids, confiscate their jewelry, and coerce them into publicly discussing the intimate aspects of their lives. Tyvan writer Felix Seglenmey recounted his observations of such gatherings in the upper regions of Khemchik, noting that married men and women were compelled to refer to their parents-in-law by name, a breach of a long-standing tradition. According to Seglenmey, many Tyvan individuals, both men and women, found themselves contemplating suicide in the wake of these gatherings, with some tragically following through.21

Protests erupted, with one of the most significant uprisings occurring in Khemchik, Pii-Khem, and Ulug-Khem, engaging more than 400 participants. Rebellions materialized in other kozhuuns as well, as insurgents voiced their opposition against property confiscation, income taxation, anti-religious propaganda, the collectivization-driven dismantling of arat farms, and the erosion of ancient customs and traditions. However, the units of of the Tyvan People's Revolutionary Army (TPRA) managed to quell all the revolts22.

In an endeavor to eradicate the influence of the “rightists” from governance, gun-noyon Mongush Buyan-Badyrgy and 16 other high-ranking officials were apprehended. In 1932, the Central Committee of the TPRP's Political Bureau took the decision to execute them23.

Having subdued internal opposition, the party's focus shifted to anti-religious repressions that persisted for over two decades. Distinguished members of the clergy were subjected to following high-profile trials24. The introduction of ideologically tinted holidays replaced traditional rituals and celebrations of . A multitude of Buddhist temples were closed, 26 of them were completely destroyed. 

In total, three thousand Buddhist monks became casualties of the repressions: some met their demise, others took their own lives, while some choose to renounce their spiritual titles, and others were dispatched to labor camps. 17 members of the family of Tyvan writer Kara-Kuske Choodu, who faced repression in the 1930s and 1950s on charges of counterrevolutionary activities, collectively served a sentence of 93 years in labor camps. The revival of Buddhism in Tyva only commenced after the collapse of the USSR.

In 1938, the republic witnessed a trial known as the “Case of the Nine”. The charges leveled against high-ranking TPR officials included allegations of plotting the “overthrow of arat authorities, aimed at subsequently reestablishing a feudal system and aligning with imperialist Japan”. On October 16, seven defendants were executed, and two, who had provided confessions, received sentences of imprisonment. 22 years later, the Prosecutor's Office of the RSFSR reevaluated the “Case of the Nine”, rehabilitating the victims by acknowledging the evidence of torture and falsification25.

The present republic's prosecutor's office acknowledges 1,286 residents as having been repressed. However, the Memorial society contends that the true figure exceeded two thousand individuals26. These statistics do not encompass the numerous Tyvan families who, in the wake of widespread collectivization and repression, migrated to the Mongolian People's Republic27

5. On the Path to Salchak Toka's Dream of Joining the USSR

In 1933, a recent graduate and fervent Stalinist, Salchak Toka, ascended to the position of Chairman of the Central Committee's Presidium within the Tyvan People's Revolutionary Party (TPRP). Beyond merely imposing repressive measures and centralizing power, Toka crafted a persona cult around himself, drawing parallels to the cult of Stalin. Elevating him to the status of a national leader became a core objective of Tyvan media, a conduit for disseminating the tenets of totalitarian ideology28.

Toka's primary political ambition, perhaps more aptly deemed a dream, was the annexation of Tyva to the Soviet Union. In 1939, during the celebration of the October Revolution's anniversary, he publicly confessed: “...I aspire to see the Arat people united with the grandeur of the Soviet Union. Until I achieve this, I will consider that my dream has not been fulfilled”29. Come April 1941, the TNR's authorities penned an appeal to Stalin requesting inclusion in the USSR.

Yet, there was no response. The rationale behind this silence rested on a foundation that the Soviet administration was already receiving material advantages from Tyva. Formal integration into the Union risked complicating the already challenging relationship with the Republic of China, which maintained its territorial claim over Tyva. This move could have also bolstered pro-Mongolian sentiments30.

June 22, 1941, marked the onset of the Great Patriotic War, coinciding with the convening of the 10th Congress of the Grand Khural of Tyva. A proclamation was issued subsequent to the congress, affirming that the “Tyvanian people, led by their revolutionary party and government, stand prepared to exert all their might and resources in the struggle of the Soviet people against the fascist aggressor until ultimate victory is secured”. 

With this declaration in place, the TNR officially entered the war in alliance with the Soviet Union, subsequently declaring war on Nazi Germany and its allies. The TNR became the first foreign state to officially support the USSR in its war against Germany. Modern Russian state media often like to promote the legend that Adolf Hitler, upon learning of the TNR's support for the Soviet Union, couldn't find a new enemy on the world map.

Driven by the party plenum's resolution, the TNR's economy transitioned to a war-focused framework. The republic's authorities transferred the nation's entire gold reserve to the Soviet Union, enforced a stringent regime of resource management, and established production lines tailored to the demands of the frontlines. A continuous stream of aid coursed over the borders: livestock, battle steeds, wool, meat, skis, and more31. Considering the size of the republic, its population, and the standard of living, this support held immeasurable significance. Over 3,500 individuals holding dual citizenship of Tyva and the Soviet Union, along with 221 Tyvan volunteers, joined the ranks at the front.

In 1943, the Red Army turned the tide of the war. Soviet influence in the world rapidly increased. China once again expressed interest in reclaiming lost territories. The leadership of the USSR had to make a decision on Tyva. Toka's dream was realized in 1944. Even before the war ended, the Soviet Union granted the Tyvan leader's request for annexation.

Historians believe that, besides China's interest in Tyva's territory and natural resources, Stalin's decision was likely influenced by the Tyvans' kinship with neighboring  Turkic-speaking peoples — Oirats, Shors, and Khakas. The prospect of an independent Tyva could potentially set a precedent for them and lead to closer ties with the Tyvans than with the Russians32.

A referendum to determine the Tyvan people's stance on joining the Soviet Union was not conducted. The decision was made not by the , but by the Smaller Khural led by Salchak Toka's wife, Anchimaa33.

Nonetheless, modern Russian historiography and the regional government uphold the notion that the annexation was an expression of the Tyvan people’s will — completely voluntary, long-awaited, and historically conditioned. This same viewpoint is conveyed in school textbooks.

6. Unspoken Complexities in the Russo-Tyvan Coexistence

Although Russia's official standpoint today portrays the annexation of Tyva as an exceptional boon for the Tyvan people, this assertion is not without its room for debate. The enforced shift towards collectivization and the shift from nomadic to settled lifestyles for traditional herdsmen, livestock breeders, and nomads have profoundly changed the quality of life for Tyvan families. Arats subjected to dekulakization were left with only a tenth of their livestock in personal possession, and they themselves were evicted and relocated to other areas. Oftentimes, domestic livestock suffered casualties amid these coerced dekulakization campaigns34.

The waves of repressions and deportations didn't only target officials and religious leaders, but also affected common inhabitants. The motivations behind the persecution varied: some resisted the new atheistic paradigm, others had affiliations with Chinese or Mongolian communities, and some held onto their livestock despite set limitations.

Tyva also faced the traditional attributes of Russian colonialism. Within the framework of population passportization and patronymic russification, the Russian naming formula of “surname — first name — patronymic”35 was forcibly introduced. The Tyvan script was cyrillicized. Children, as recounted by Russian educators themselves, were “taken away from their parents with tears” and sent to boarding schools to learn Russian literacy and adopt Soviet ideology. There were unofficial efforts to make local populace addicted to alcohol36.

Historical factors — a compelled transition to communism and russification, the rigor of cultural policies, the haunting memory of repressions, entrenched social disparities, and pervasive poverty among the indigenous population — contributed to a scenario where, in the early 1990s, a segment of Tyva's populace harbored some animosity towards the “big brother”, the Russian people. Some believed that the presence of Russians in the republic had led to its current state. These hard feelings towards Russians translated into various confrontations.

Among them, the most noteworthy was the retrospectively puzzling yet still-debated conflict in Khovu-Aksy village, home to the Tyva Cobalt Plant, which remains a topic in Russian nationalist discourse as an example of “russicide”. Following the conflict, Russian specialists departed the settlement. Over the ensuing two decades, the number of Russians in the republic steadily declined due to their departure.

Even industrially developed entities like the Tuvacobalt Plant proved to be operationally unviable, and with the dissolution of the USSR, faced inevitable closure. The lack of a railway impeded industrial growth, necessitating the reliance on trucks for logistical support, which complicated and extended shipping, and also escalated its cost. The project to construct a railway line in the region was initially discussed back in the 1960s and 1970s, yet it remains unrealized to this day.

Prior to the shutdown of Soviet enterprises, they had already become a focal point for interethnic tensions within the republic. Many employers at the factories were of Russian origin and often displayed a bias towards Russian candidates. In addition to offering stable salaries, employment in these factories could grant access to newly built free housing, which contributed to local resentment due to the perceived favoritism.

Discontent with Russian migrants and their personnel policies, which exacerbated social inequality, led to the rise of the national movement. In 1991, the People's Front “” was formed, advocating for the economic autonomy of the republic and subsequently its independence, as well as contesting the illegality of Tyva's "incorporation" into the USSR in 1944. The People's Front succeeded in organizing a series of mass actions in the capital demanding an independence referendum and staging pickets against the ruling elite. The People's Party of Sovereign Tyva (PPST) was established based on the People's Front. By the late 1990s, the organization had dissolved. Various reasons are cited for the disbandment of the PPST, including the successfully implemented goals of the movement37, disagreements among participants regarding Tyva's sovereignty38, mysterious deaths of some members, and leadership changes39. It's worth noting that shortly after its dissolution, some former PPST members acquired property and occupied high-ranking positions within the republic's government.

Currently, Tyva ranks as one of the most economically deprived regions with the lowest living standards. High unemployment rates coupled with a high birth rate exacerbate the population's poverty. A significant portion of the territory lacks access to gas and electricity infrastructure. As a result, the population relies heavily on coal for sustenance. Railways are still absent, crucial for the normal development of infrastructure.

In 2022, Tyva became the first region in Russia with the highest number of soldiers killed in Ukraine per capita. Local authorities actively endorsed and promoted “partial” mobilization, which transitioned to a covert phase after the official cessation. Residents who voiced opposition to the war face repression and pressure. As compensation for families of around 1,500 mobilized men, the government distributed a live ram and a sack of coal for each family.

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  26. Саая, С. В., Сат, С. Ч. “Причины политических репрессий в Тувинской Народной Республике в 1930–1940 гг.” [Causes of political repressions in the Tuva People's Republic in 1930–1940]. Вестник Тывинского государственного университета, 2009, № 1. [URL].
  27. Отрощенко, И. В. “Из истории протестного движения в ТНР первой половины 1930-х гг.” [From the history of the protest movement in the TPR in the first half of the 1930s] // Новые исследования Тувы, 2012, № 2. [URL].
  28. Кан, В. С. “Идеологическая подготовка вхождения Тувы в состав СССР. Роль и участие СМИ” [Ideological preparation of Tyva's joining the USSR. Role and involvement of the media] // Вестник Томского государственного университета, 2014, № 5. [URL].
  29. Сузукей, В. С., Монгуш, С. Ю. “Роль С. К. Тока в развитии культуры, искусства и науки Тувы” [The role of S. K. Toka in the development of culture, art and science of Tuva]. [URL].
  30. Отрощенко, И. В. “Тувинская Народная Республика накануне вхождения в состав СССР глазами советского дипломата” [Tuvan People’s Republic on the eve of accession to the USSR through the eyes of a Soviet diplomat] // Новые исследования Тувы, 2019, № 4. [URL].
  31. Доржу, З. Ю. “Тувинская Народная Республика накануне и во время Великой Отечественной войны” [Tuvan People's Republic on the eve and during the Great Patriotic War] // Вестник Томского государственного университета. [URL].
  32. Kolarz, W. The Peoples of the Soviet Far East. New York, 1954. [URL].
  33. Отрощенко, И. В. “Вхождение Тувы в состав СССР: альтернативные мнения” [Tyva’s accession to the USSR: alternative opinions] // Новые исследования Тувы, 2017, № 4. [URL].
  34. Иргит, О. Ю. “Политические репрессии в Тувинской Народной Республике в 1921–1944 гг.” [Political repressions in the Tuvan People's Republic in 1921–1944]. Кызыл, 2019. [URL].
  35. Чимиза, К. Ламажаа. “Основные проблемы исследования родства и родственных групп современных тувинцев: паспортизация, терминология и поддержание родства” [The Main Issues of the Study of Kinship and Kin Groups of Contemporary Tuvans: Passportization, Terminology and Maintenance of Kinship ] // Новые исследования Тувы, 2021, № 4. [URL]
  36. Tuvan writer Maadyr-ool Khovalyg speaks about this, in particular, in an interview. [URL]
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  38. Музаев, Т. М. “Этнический сепаратизм в России” [Ethnic separatism in Russia]. М.: “Панорама”, 1999. [URL].
  39. Члены Народного фронта Тувы “Хостуг Тыва” отметили 10-летие со дня его I организационного съезда [Members of the People's Front of Tuva “Khostug Tyva” celebrated the 10th anniversary of its 1st organizational congress] // Tuva Online, 15.05.2002. [URL].
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