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Children's Illustration

© Yelena Yasen. Children’s Illustration in Russia during the First Decade after the Revolution. Chicago, 1991

Yelena Yasen


The Development of Children’s Book
in Post-revolutionary Russia


Design Issues, Chicago University
Vol. VIII, Number 1 Fall 1991, p. 57 – 66


This article was born out of the desire to comprehend the development of the Leningrad School of children’s book illustration in the decade following The Russian Revolution.  Rather than attempting to encompass all the available material on this subject, this article focuses on the works of the four Leningrad artists, V. Lebedev, V. Ermolaeva, N. Lapshin, and N. Tjersa, who began to create art specifically for children in post-revolutionary Russia.  Their works are viewed as typical examples of that historical period.

The “Children’s Department” of the State Publishing House was founded in Leningrad in 1925.  Its purpose was to create literature and art for children.  This department was headed by both the poet S. Marshak and the painter Lebedev.  They and their collaborators developed the method of children’s book illustration.

Some of Marshak’s books with Lebedev’s illustrations, published in the middle of the 1920s, are recognized as classics of art for children.  Lebedev’s illustrations for such books as The Circus, Today and Yesterday, The Ice-Cream and others have been received enthusiastically as most innovative by art historians who usually emphasize books containing representations of the new way of life.

V. Lebedev, The Circus, 1925, from the author's book collection

© Vladimir Lebedev, The Circus, Leningrad, 1925 (from the author’s book collection)

There are no such representations in The Circus; nevertheless, it has the most innovative artistic structures that appropriately express the new epoch.  This popular book was widely imitated.  “The book’s drawings exploded the ordinary book page, or better put it, they organized it in an absolutely new way.  These unprecedented drawings made a strong impression on the viewer.  They were executed with a sense of humor, brightness, and joyful colors, and they were to determine the appearance of the majority of children’s books during that time” (E. Rachtanov, Rasskasi po pamiaty [Memoir’s Stories], Moscow, 1969, p. 23).

The Circus is conceived of as cascade of tricks:  every page illustrates one circus trick.  The participants of the performance look vibrant and, at the same time, like toys.  They involve the spectator (adult as well as child) in the dazzling spectacle, created as a celebration of color.

The pages look like compositions of the colors of the rainbow.  The Circus actors for the most part wear red, yellow, and blue costumes.  The equipment has the same colorful correlations.  The drawings are rendered in primary colors, which look particularly picturesque and create a feeling of optimism.

In addition to the contrasting colors, a contrast of texture greatly enriches the graphic design.  For example, the piebald skin of the horse and its red smooch horsecloth have different textural qualities.  Such a combination creates a very colorful contrast.  The juxtaposition of color and texture is carefully considered.  Lebedev had much experience with color and texture in his numerous posters (Okna ROSTA, the classical heritage of Russian post revolutionary art).  There is a deep relationship between the artistic method of the posters and that of The Circus.

The joyful, almost magical quality of this book is achieved by more than its colorfulness and the painter’s knowledge of graphic design principles.  Lebedev’s method of using the book page is ingenious.  The white page is not simply an inert background for his pictures but is an element that is able to radiate a real abundance of color as well as artistic ideas.  All the drawings are permeated with white; not one graphic form here is isolated from the space of the white field.  As a result, a harmonious balance arises between two material stages that are transformed into the language of graphic form.  All colorful forms can be compared to corporeal objects.  A white field provides the atmosphere in which those objects can exist.

V. Lebedev, The Circus, 1925, from the author's book collection

© Vladimir Lebedev, The Circus, Leningrad, 1925 (from the author’s book collection)

The clown’s shoes seem as if they will turn down very soon, as they are not attached to the clown’s fat, short legs.  An avalanche of invisible sparks seems to be running down the juggler’s slender legs.  We can almost feel him stamping his feet mischievously.  The painter’s use of this device creates tremendous dynamic effect.  The cheerful characters are transformed from a static geometric design into charming vital images.

It is not only the use of color that creates the dynamic atmosphere of these drawings but also the mastery of line.  Lebedev’s drawings can give a perfect depiction of any part of the human or animal figure, but they go beyond this in expressing the motion and emotions of those human and animal figures as well.  The painter’s ability to render a general idea of any object and, at the same time, keep its individual traits is remarkable.

Lebedev’s use of black is no less interesting than his use of white.  In The Circus black looks like a bright color because the painter uses it sparingly for quite special details.  That is why the use of black here is able to contribute to the colorful effect of the book’s design.  In addition, the black creates an exceptional optical effect.  Only black has the quality of drawing the spectator to the design.  It serves to sandwich colors between the black forefront and the white field behind the depicted objects.  The buttons on the black juggler’s outfit, for example, look like thumbtacks attaching his figure to the book’s page.

Black is the limit of the drawn object on the side nearest the viewer.  White holds the opposite side of the depicted object.  Lebedev was able to maintain the flatness of the book page with the help of this method.  He understood the rules of conditional graphic space.  It is evident that Lebedev was in complete command of his medium.   He applied the suprematist experience masterfully.  In The Circus the painter created a perfectly organized and innovative artistic system.

At this point it is easy to see why this book was acknowledged as a graphic masterpiece of the 1920s.  Components in the system include a skillful play of contrasting colors and texture (a typical suprematist feature), the sensation of dynamism (futurism), and the folk art tradition.  This latter feature of The Circus’s drawings is reminiscent of “lubok” style.  In other words, Lebedev combined in one book all possible artistic means to express the contemporary spirit.  The Circus brought an entirely new meaning to postrevolutionary graphic art.  Full-blooded contemporary life had rushed into the pages of the book.  It was far removed from the exquisite spirit of the “World of Art,” the epitome of Russian graphic art before the Revolution.  The Circus’s characters express some typical human feelings of the 1920s, the first stable years that followed the violent revolutionary storms, feeling of joy, hope, and even belief in the future.

V. Lebedev, The Circus, 1925, from the author's book collection

© Vladimir Lebedev, The Circus, Leningrad, 1925 (from the author’s book collection)

The writer V. Shklovsky said concerning that period:  “It is well known that a child learns how to live through the game.  New art was like a game for adults; it came to adults through children” (V. Shklovsky, Memoirs’ Stories, Introduction).  The rules of this game were thought over quite seriously.  Before the creation of The Circus, Lebedev had already made his posters, his first children’s books, and experimental cubist paintings.  He had already been the Vhutemas’ professor and collaborated at GINKHUK.  The leading painters, such as V. Tatlyn, K. Malevich, and others were joined by GINKHUK.  They studied many art problems and folk art ideas and collected folk art items.  They wanted to discover new methods and media for expressing the post-revolutionary epoch (Vhutemas is the abbreviated name for the institution meaning the Graduate Artistic and Technical Classes.  GINKHUK is the abbreviated name for the other institution meaning the State Institute of Artistic Culture.  Both were very important for cultural life in Russia in the beginning of the 1920s).

The painter V. Ermolaeva was very interested in collecting objects of folk art.  She was a manager of the GINKHUK Laboratory where the problems of color were studied.  Later she became a close collaborator of Lebedev’s at the “Children’s Department.”

Before this collaboration Ermolaeva had already tried her hand at children’s illustration.  A Little Hare or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 is from her first children’s book.  The design of A Little Hare is not as magnificent as that of The Circus but there is a faultless sense of color here which is the greatest achievement of the book. This abundance of color became the most distinctive characteristic of Ermolaeva’s later works.  She brought out the picturesque quality of graphic design so contrary to strict geometrical forms.

V. Ermolaeva, A Little Hare or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1923, from the author's book collection

© Vera Ermolaeva, A Little Hare or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Leningrad, 1923 (from the author’s book collection)

During her work at the “Children’s Department,” Ermolaeva published many children’s books.  The Train was one of the best (1929).  This story is about eight boys who decide to go to different places in the world.  Every page has a picture of one of those places.  Thus the spectator can see different lands and cityscapes.  The book gives a sensation of immense spaces that change impetuously one after another.  It is important to remember that motion is a favorite topic of twentieth-century art.  There is a noticeable difference between the depiction of motion in The Train and The Circus.  Ermolaeva’s book used the same devise for every page—semantic contrast—to show the possibility of smoothly taking in many sights.

Fascinating little carriages ride across the middle of every page, dividing it into two opposing parts, such as the sky and the earth, the sea and the shore, the forest and the jungle.  This method of semantic contrast is strengthened by the contrast of colors.  The contrasting colors do not want to yield to each other in their resonance.  The brown-red hues (depicting the desert or cityscape) literally fight with the deep blue and lilac (of the sea or the night street).

The folk tradition is evident in the use of the strained interplay of color.  Ermolaeva demonstrates exquisite taste using the love of bright paints found in folk art.  She obtained the same brightness and powerful impression that Lebedev had in The Circus.  But Lebedev was able to achieve an artistic balance because he used primary colors restrained by strict geometrical forms.  Those forms softened the brightness of the colors and brought a sense of harmony into the graphic design.  Ermolaeva’s pictorial method, on the other hand, demanded the use of hues.  However, her drawings did not look like painting reproductions—she never forgot about the main role of the book page.  In other words, while she gave maximum color to the page, Ermolaeva simultaneously kept the page’s white field.

V. Ermolaeva, The Train, 1929, from the author's book collection

© Vera Ermolaeva, The Train, Leningrad, 1929 (from the author’s book collection)

When Ermolaeva began to work in the “Children’s Department,” she used montage and “comparison of silhouettes” method, as Lebedev did in The Circus.  She demonstrated similar skills in the combination of different rhythms and colors.  Pictorial design later replaced montage as her primary method.  After a long search Ermolaeva discovered a way of combining pictorial and graphic methods into one.  Her books show the psychological reaction to the extreme emotional asceticism of the Avant-Garde movements.  If Lebedev had expressed an emotional spirit within geometrical forms themselves, Ermolaeva offered a way of substituting graphic design for pictorial design. Ermolaeva’s method was in fact a suggestion of a new esthetic ideal, which the spectator so desired after the endless artistic experiments of the beginning of the twentieth century.  By the mid 1920s the spectator deeply needed modern and synthetic attitudes toward nature.  There was a logic in the direction art was taking from the geometrical to the pictorial method.  One can easily demonstrate that Ermolaeva had a productive method behind her work.  Many painters chose this light-pictorial method in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  One can recall such patterns as Lebedev’s The Ballet Dancers, L. Brunie’s and V. Kanashevich’s drawings, N. Lapshin’s The Voyage of Marco Polo, and so forth.  The pictorial drawing is harmoniously comprised of feeling as an element of sense, and dynamic sensation as an element of form.  Up to the end of the 1920s Russian art was too limited by the depiction of human feelings.  Art historian A. Bakushinsky wrote in 1928:

These [Avant-Garde] painters have helped to surmount the last archaisms of impressionism such as the flabby and non-constructing composition.  They have returned fin art onto a strong, analytical path solving some artistic problems in a totally new way.  But, at the same time, they have absolutely abolished the object as an artistic topic from the process of synthetic creation.  Their declaration was that the only right way in art was the analytical and logical way of artistic thinking…  It seems that the drawing has to search for its new direction through the combination of analytical and light-pictorial design, in order to discover a new artistic world view (A. Bakushinsky, Russki Risunok za Desiat Let Oktiabrskoy Revoluzyi [Russian Drawing during the Ten Years of October’s Revolution], Moscow, 1928, p. 9, 12).   To prove his thesis, A. Bakushinksy points to such painters as Lebedev, V. Kuprejanov, and N. Tjersa.

Like Lebedev and Ermolaeva, N. Tjersa had tried many different paths before his job in the “Children’s Department.”  One important fact in his biography is his chairmanship of Vhutemas.  Tjersa also wanted to find his own direction in children’s illustration.  Able to draw for small children as well as teenagers, he had a wide creative range.


© Nikolay Tjersa, The Military Horses, Leningrad, 1929 (from the author’s book collection)

The Military Horses is one of his best works from the late 1920s.  Two figures of little horses looking like wooden toys are placed in the center of the red cover.  Doubtless this was the style of the early 1920s, with its emphasis on montage and active color contrast.  But something unexpected awaits the reader inside the book.  Black and white watercolor illustrations have amazing force.  The horses, which are the main characters of the book, look so indomitable and full of great energy. The artist creates this effect by doing away with line.  Here line is not a visible limit that separates graphic forms, such as a human or animal figure from the surrounding environment.  There are not longer any borders, only a compact pictorial stream that transforms itself from one graphic object into another.  Thus Tjersa used a method different from that of Lebedev and Ermolaeva to express a sense of dynamism.  He used a black and white tonal design created from a white piece of paper intersected by numerous black and gray hues so that it seems the book pages start to quiver.

N. Tjersa, The Military Horses, 1929, from the author's book collection

© Nikolay Tjersa, The Military Horses, Leningrad, 1929 (from the author’s book collection)

The Circus had an impressive sense of dynamism too, but did not have such exquisite pictorial nuances which were able to be incorporated only by the use of a tonal design, the method which prospered in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Unfortunately, this method was later adopted by the state proponents of “social realism” to create a mechanical depiction of reality. It is interesting that while Tjersa’s technique was well developed, the same cannot be said about the meaning of his drawings.  It seems as if he occasionally forgot about the semantic level of the drawings, which accounts for the lack-of-sense quality in his characters’ faces (for example, the depiction of the officer-cadets in V. Kaverin’s book The Siege of the Palace).  Not only Tjersa but other collaborators of the “Children’s Department” as well lacked a point of psychological level in the characters of their 1920-s’ books.  This lack was not due to an inability on their part but to their concentration on solving some of the major artistic tasks of that historical period.

The primary direction art was to take over the next decade was to reflect the psychological and individual qualities of the human personality.  Because of this, Lebedev and his colleagues enthusiastically accepted some books by the younger painter, V. Pakhomov, a student of Lebedev at the “Children’s Department.”  Pakhomov founded a new tradition in Soviet graphic art for children, extending the range of themes in illustrations by including such topics as specific environment, as well as the expression of concrete human feelings.

It was natural that the primary direction of art in the 1920s was to search for typical features of the post-revolutionary way of life.  Certainly, new facts of the 1930s, a more stable existence for example, demanded expression in art.  For the mature masters comprehending such facts rapidly and fining the artistic mediums to show them was difficult.  But there was yet another, more serious reason why Lebedev and his co-workers suffered a profound creative crisis at the end of the 1930s.

The painters of the “Children’s Department” were unjustly condemned by art critics from the beginning of the 1930s.  This crude critical attitude was a part of the general situation in the Soviet Union during that period.  The Stalinist regime directed Soviet art and book illustration for a long period of time.  From roughly the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, artistic design was dominated by the use of a mechanical, faceless illusory style.

The artistic achievements of the late 1920s and early 1930s, such as pictorial –light method and true-to-life depiction, were done away with.  Soviet art lost the tendency of generalizing nature’s motives.  Illiterate, cruel criticism urged fine masters to abide by “socialist realism,” which meant a direct imitation of reality.  Lebedev found himself in quite unbearable circumstances.  Tjersa tried to change his field by illustrating classical literature, which was less dangerous than conducting innovative experiments in children’s books.  Ermoloaeva met the most tragic result of the regime, which took repressive actions against her.  She was exiled from Leningrad and, according to current information, died in 1938.

N. L apshin, The Sun Is on the Table, 1927, from the author's private collection

© Nikolay Lapshin, The Sun Is on the Table, Leningrad, 1927 (from the author’s private collection)

N. Lapshin, the fourth member of the “Children’s Department,” did not manage to avoid a lot of misfortunes and frustrations either.  But for some reason he enjoyed great success during the 1930s.  Lapshin’s creative approach contained such good prospects for the development of children’s illustration that he somehow was able to overcome the tremendous difficulties of that period. Before his work at the “Children’s Department,” Lapshin had already been a professor at Vhutemas and the editor of a children’s magazine, New Robinzon.  Thus, he knew the specifics of children’s illustrations and of the printing industry, as well.  His thoughts, which can be fund in his diary, show his deep knowledge of world art:  “… from the schemes of cubism and futurism through the primitives and through Old masters to creative works of Goya, Manet, Matisse, Marquet…  It became my challenge to synthesize all world art—the laconic primitive forms and the drawings of prehistoric man, children creation, fork signs, Japanese and Chinese drawings which had a profound influence on European Art” (N. Lapshin, Rukopis [Manuscript], Archive of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Case #144 (452), p. 70).  Here Lapshin is talking about the necessity of comprehending the whole, manifold artistic heritage.

N. Laphshin, The Travels of Marco Polo, New York, printed from the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934, Rare books and manuscripts division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

© Nikolay Laphshin, The Voyage of Marco Polo, New York, printed for the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934, Rare books and manuscripts division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

Lapshin was not able to realize his creative program immediately.  Charming illustrations to Our Kitchen, by K. Chukovsky (1925), employed the same suprematist design that Lebedev used in The Circus.  More original Laphsin’s works appeared by the end of the 1920s.  One of his best books was on the history of the printing industry, Black across White, by M. Eljen.  One finds in it an interesting contrast, which the painters above also had widely employed in their work. A wide white diagonal zone crosses the black book cover.  Such a device gives a strong feeling of vigor to the page.  Black appears for the second time as the book title upon the white zone.  The letters of the title look like a child’s writing and contribute a sense of childishness to the appearance of the book.  Thus, Lapshin uses the contrast of two colors twice to create a strong suprematist (push and pull) effect.  In addition, an emotional contrast of vigor and softness is achieved by the contrast of the geometrical flatness and childlike letters.  But the colorful play of these contrasts is not the artist’s main goal after all!

Lapshin’s graphic approach incites the reader not only to pick up the book to admire its design but to open and read it because of its mysterious, enigmatic images.  Children cannot immediately recognize the ancient Egyptian carving some strange signs upon a piece of stone.  They probably do not know the second depicted character either, a medieval scholar writing his manuscript.  Lapshin uses the artistic design to reveal the second practical function of the book. Long before his work at the “Children’s Department,” Lapshin was affected by the idea that a work of art is an object, on one hand, but is a complex of artistic images, as well.  It seems strange today that this idea was not so obvious to many Russian artists, and, as a matter of fact, other masters in the 1920s but the dispute about this idea resulted in very serious disagreements among them.  As a result, Russian artists were divided into two opposing groups.

The first group tried to create works of pure artistic design, attempting to avoid any “literature” content or practical applications to their works—they believed that art was to serve pure spirit.  The second group considered art to be for industrial production only—they considered that the only real purpose of art was to satisfy practical needs.  Laphsin felt that there was no such deep gap between these two art functions and tried to unite these two equally important functions of art harmoniously in his books.  He was convinced that a book is both a piece of art, which may contain graphic images of artistic value, and a material thing, which is used by people in their everyday lives.

The artistic design of Black and White is highly professional.  Laphsin’s drawings correspond perfectly with the context.  In combination with the concrete information of the chapter or paragraph, these drawings are able to evoke the manifold moods that arise from the meaning of the text.  As a result, the drawings and the text become indivisible. The artist obtained a real artistic synthesis between the text and the depictions.

N. Lapshin, The Voyage of Marco Polo, New York, printed for the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934. Rarebooks and manuscripts division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

© Nikolay Lapshin, The Voyage of Marco Polo, New York, printed for the members of the Limited Editions Club, 1934. Rarebooks and manuscripts division. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation

There is one more special quality in the illustrations of Black across White, the harmonious combination of lithographic technique and the miniature style that is typical of Far Eastern art.  This combination is not accidental.  When young Lapshin studied with Lebedev at the private studio of Professor E. Bernstein, he had a real passion for learning different graphic techniques.  He kept this love throughout his entire life.  In addition, because of his profound study of classical Far Eastern art, he began to appreciate the charm of miniature design.  Throughout his creative development, Lapshin achieved a superb understanding of oriental art. In the early 1930s Lapshin participated in a creative contest among several hundred painters from different countries.  The contest was set up by one of the publishing houses in New York.  The painters had to illustrate the book The Voyage of Marco Polo.  Much to his own surprise, Lapshin won this major competition, confirming his high level of skills for which he had already earned a reputation.

Lapshin made approximately 400 watercolor miniatures for Marco Polo.  The painter used a tiny vignette at the beginning of the text of every new chapter to create a feeling of having travelled around the world.  Readers could almost feel the burning heat in the desert; they went to the bottom of the ocean and watched the rare breeds of fish going by; they glanced through windows of the marvelous Eastern pagoda, and so forth.

It is very important to note that these illustrations do not look like originals of Far Eastern art.  We do not find vey typical Oriental designs such as flat relief or depictions of mysterious sights of the Orient.  On the contrary, we find numerous cityscapes and landscapes which retain their unique and concrete appearance. Lapshin did not mechanically imitate Oriental design but built his own system using Oriental artistic ideas creatively.

Lapshin’s illustrations were of such fine quality that it seems as if the painter had followed the words of an ancient virtuoso:  “Sometimes a brush is like a tender cloud, sometimes it softly drills the paper as if were a little worm; it can spring lightly upon the paper as a grasshopper; or scratches as an old tree” (B. Vipper, Stati ob Iskusstve [Articles on Art], Moscow, 1970, p. 62).

The main goal of the artists of the “Children’s Department” was to create a new kind of book for children.  This new book was to expand children’s imagination and to give them appropriate ideas about the diversity of the world, the complexity of human feelings, the boundless opportunities of science, and so forth.  That is why the artist of the “Children’s Department” tried to include an educational element for every age level in the children’s books they designed.

Lapshin developed this aspect more thoroughly than the other members of the “Children’s Department.”   For him this educational element was crucial.  He succeeded in combining interesting educational texts, the achievements of modern art, and the classical (in this case, Far Eastern) tradition.

The best results in children’s books are obtained by combining three important elements—learning, classical heritage, and the best achievements of modern technique.  This latter feature is as important for children’s books as it is for any artistic work in general.

V. Lebedev, Yesterday and Today, 1925, from the author's book collection

© Vladimir Lebedev, Yesterday and Today, Leningrad, 1925 (from the author’s book collection)

There is nothing new in the idea that every change in history requires a new artistic approach.  The same idea applies to art aimed at children.  Undoubtedly, painters who designed children’s illustration today cannot mechanically use the artistic forms of the 1920s or 1930s.  The masters of the “Children’s Department” of the State Publishing House in Leningrad discovered this in the 1920s, and it was their major accomplishment.  In order to follow their discovery they studied the most important problems of contemporary art.  As a result of their endeavors, energy, and belief, Russian children’s books of the 1920s and early 1930s reflected the most innovative features of contemporary art. It was necessary to repeat the same process in the 1930s to develop an artistic style appropriate to the new period.  But, as was mentioned above, Russian art in the 1930s did not have the same opportunity to search for a new artistic and spiritual ideal.  The political situation hindered creative freedom.

A new generation of Russian illustrators who continued the great achievements of the “Children’s Department” artists appeared only in the 1960s.  Most of them remembered seeing and reading the lovely books of Ermolaeva, Lapshin, Lebedev, Tjersa, and other reputable masters during their childhoods.  In the mid 1960s many of those books were published as examples of classic Russian art heritage for children.

The artists of the 1960s learned from these books how to express modern ideas and create their own artistic images simultaneously.   One cannot understand the contemporary children’s book in Russia without examining its roots, found the art of the 1920s and early 1930s.  It is necessary to recall the Russian children’s book illustrations of that period had tremendous success in the West in the early 1930s, where they were acknowledged as a very interesting, new, and innovative artistic phenomenon (This fact was mentioned by the magazine Kniga-Detiam [Book for Children], in the article Illustrazia v Sovetskoy Detskoy Knige [Illustration in the Soviet Children’s Book], 1928, p. 5 -6, 44.  In addition, it was discussed in a private conversation with V. Kurdov, an artist and one of V. Lebedev’s students at the “Children’s Department”).





About Yelena Yasen

Yelena Yasen (Елена Ясногородская): M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The Academy of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Russia. Work history includes: The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia; Brooklyn Museum, New York; New School for Social Research, New York. Presently: College Professor, Writer, Art Designer; an author of "Russian Children's Book Illustration or Another Chapter in the History of Russian Avant-Garde" (Institute of Modern Russian Culture, University of Southern California, Archive) and more than 30 published articles in Russian and English.


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