Eyes on Barents

The Power of Comiсs

June 21, 2019
How a community art project helps revive endangered national languages.


Text and photos by:  Andrew Gorbachev, Maxim Jaravin, Maria Dmitrieva, Anna Yarovaya, Gleb Yarovoy, Elena Nelinova


National languages are dying out. UNESCO’s «Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger» proves that. Researchers believe that languages disappear for many reasons: people tend to live in cities where they speak the dominant language, forget cultural traditions, the number of native speakers shrinks. The state’s attitude to languages also plays a huge role. The international Living Language Project arouses interest in learning languages with the help of comics. Its initiators from Moscow and Finland and participants in Murmansk Oblast, Karelia and Komi told «7×7» about what is happening to national languages in Russia and abroad. 


The History the Living Language Projects

«The real heroes of this story are the local national language activists who save the Finno-Ugric world every day, telling about their life, history, legends in their native language», — write the authors of the Living Language Project on the Finno-Ugric Comics website. The word «save» is used here in its literal meaning, because some languages are almost extinct: there are dialects spoken by only a few dozen people. 

In 2015, in Petrozavodsk, Finnish comic artist Sanna Hukkanen and linguist Anna Voronkova held the first master class on drawing comics with Finno-Ugric activists, journalists, teachers, librarians. After that, there were seminars in Udmurtia, Mari El, Komi, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug, Mordovia, on the Kola Peninsula, in Karelia, Tver Oblast, in Leningrad Oblast, Finland, Norway, Setomaa in Estonia. Within four years, a large amount of material has been collected: comics’ exhibitions are held, postcards are printed out, they are published in newspapers, a book is being prepared for its publication. 

Sanna Hukkanen and Anna Voronkova are sure: anyone can learn how to draw comics, special training is not required. But short phrases, together with the pictures, acquire a special power: word and image start working together. 
According to UNESCO’s «Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger», over the past ten years, the situation with the Finno-Ugric languages has not changed: Karelian and Komi belong to the group of languages «at risk», and researchers believe that the number of speakers is not going to rise. Veps, Votic, Ingrian, and other languages of the Sámi subgroup are getting closer to the «serious» and «critical danger» (the number of speakers is up to several hundreds). In Finland, three languages of the Sámi subgroup may disappear.

Comics are a simple but powerful tool to support the language

Sanna Hukkanen lives in Joensuu, in a wooden house with a large stove. In her work she combines conventionality (concern about indigenous languages, first of all about Karelian) with non-conventionality — creating comics. An educated artist, she lived in Tanzania for several years, participated in the projects of one of the Finnish charities. There Sanna began to work with unusual groups, taught them to draw comics by the World Comics Finland method for people with disabilities. She returned to Finland after she had given birth to her daughter. For the World Comics Finland project, together with Karelian activists, she made a manual on drawing comics in Karelian, conducted trainings for migrants. During her first time in Petrozavodsk in 2014, she got excited with the idea of using comics to support indigenous languages. 
Sanna Hukkanen is artist from Joensuu, Finland. Photo: 7x7-journal


«I might be partly Karelian myself»

— My father’s family comes from Impilakhti [a village located in the territories of Ladoga Karelia which were annexed to the USSR after the World War II], but today we do not know for sure whether they spoke Karelian or Finnish. 

In 2014, in Petrozavodsk, I met activists concerned about saving the Karelian language — Natalia Vorobey and other members of the Karelian People’s Union. Before that I had definitely known about the Karelian language’s existence and that it was close to my Finnish dialect, but I had never met its native speakers. After this meeting I began to learn Karelian as a hobby. And then I thought that comics could be a good way to support indigenous languages, because the technique was very simple and cheap. You only need paper and pencil, and desire. You do not need high technologies and a lot of money. On the other hand, it is a very powerful tool, because it combines text and picture. And in the picture you can express something that cannot be expressed in words [briefly]. Learning how to create comics takes one day, and everyone can do it. 

It is not easy to recall all the regions where the project «Finno-Ugric Comics» is held, especially — to count the languages, because indigenous languages have different dialects. 

Some indigenous languages are almost dead, because children and young people do not speak them. And this is relatable even to the «big» languages. And even more so — for some Sámi dialects, that are spoken only by dozens of people. But now people are trying to revive them, asking grandmothers to speak with their grandchildren in their native language. This is the last chance to save the indigenous languages. 

Unfortunately, we have to admit that saving languages today is primarily the task of parents. Especially in Russia, where indigenous and national languages are not studied much at schools. Even if native speakers and a demand for a language still exist. For example, among Tver Karelians. 

A group of pupils with teachers came to the training in Likhoslavl for adult activists. The children did not speak Karelian, but became interested in our training and asked to participate. And when they started drawing comics, we noticed that many teachers knew Karelian, because they quietly gave hints how to say a word or phrase in Karelian. But none of those teachers spoke it out loud, they were very embarrassed. And they are even more embarrassed to teach the language. 

«Chances to save local languages are very illusive» 

[In different regions of Russia] the situation with indigenous languages is very different. How can we compare Udmurt, spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, and Sámi dialects, spoken by from several hundred to a couple dozen people? The Udmurt language is the state language, but some Sámi dialects are generally not recognized by anyone. On the other hand, there are significant examples in Finland: Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi managed to revive their languages and start using them in everyday communication. The technology of «language nests», when children in kindergarten and then at school learn and communicate with adults in their native language, helped them. By the way, the same technology is used in Vedlozero, Karelia, in the House of the Karelian Language. This is a unique story for Russia, on which many activists from other regions look with admiring envy. 

The biggest problem of saving languages is a time gap between a young person leaving his language environment (for example, moving from a village to a city to study) and when (and if) he returns to his native village many years later, having remembered his identity. It turns out very often that it is late or there is nowhere to return. Every time we conduct our trainings and seminars, people draw these stories, and they are very tragic. 

In general, though it is unpleasant to admit it, chances to save local languages are very illusive. Nevertheless, there is a positive trend too: young people are beginning to use modern technologies in order to develop indigenous languages. They create web-sites, virtual keyboards, or Wikipedia sections in their native languages. 

Much depends on the state’s position as well. Karelian language in Finland has the status of a local language, and the state does provide some support. But the situation is changeable. For example, until this year Sámi had had their own language center receiving state subsidies. But a year ago, the Finnish government cut the funding, and the center closed. We all hope that the new government will change the situation. 

In Russia, supporting their own «local» language is often considered to be a threat. This is just a part of the identity and does not mean that native speakers will be a threat to the dominant culture. But sometimes you are allowed to dance and wear a suit, but developing your language is called extra. However, my personal activity has never met any obstacles. We do create something, we do make art. 

The history of the Karelian language in Finland is tragic. The hundreds of thousands residents of Ladoga Karelia who were evacuated to Finland after the Winter War [the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939—1940] were perceived here not as immigrants, but as refugees. Therefore, the status of the language was like that: people were simply shy to speak it, it was not taught in schools, not passed down from generation to generation and gradually died as a language of everyday communication. There are still people who speak Karelian as their native language, including children, but these are rare exceptions. Most people in Finland, I believe, are unaware of the very existence of the Karelian language, or consider it to be no more than a dialect of Finnish. 

Native Identity Is Stronger Than Anything That Is Said on TV 


Anna is a translator from Finnish, graduate of Moscow State University, she lives in Moscow.
Anna Voronkova is a translator from Finnish. Photo:  7x7-journal

«I thought the Finno-Ugric languages were dead. I was wrong»

— I was aware of the existence of Finno-Ugric languages in Russia, but, to be honest, I thought that they had already died — probably because this opinion is translated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is much more prestigious to study Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian — to find a job later. In 2015, Sanna Hukkanen invited me to Petrozavodsk for a master class in the publishing house «Periodica» for those who use Karelian or Veps languages in their work. Then I realized that my linguist’s outlook is not as wide as that of the first-year-students who speak Finnish better than I do. Their native language is Karelian, and they have a better understanding of many patterns. After that meeting, I told Sanna: «There are other Finno-Ugric languages in Russia, let’s try to hold such master classes for them». It was interesting to know what languages are spoken in our country. And we went to Udmurtia. At the Embassy of Finland gave us the contacts and helped to pay travel expenses. 

Then Sanna applied for the Kone Foundation grant, we immediately received and used it to go to the regions. The organizers there provided platforms and gathered people who work with national languages. 

At the master classes, we analyze ready-made comics and ask three questions: what the author wanted to say, to whom he wanted to say it and what he managed to do. It is important to create a comic of four pictures — this is a good format for the A3 exhibition, comics can be placed in a book. All comics are black and white, so you can save money by copying and printing them at home or at work. We have a manual that you can download for free
«We realized we needed villages because that is where the real stories are»

— The main goal of the project is to support the activity of those who are trying to save their native language. We met unique people who love their job very much. For me, as a philologist, it was very interesting to see that native identity is much stronger than everything that is said on TV. It was interesting to get acquainted with the «handmade» initiatives, when people create projects themselves. It is inspiring. 

When we arrived in Khanty-Mansiysk for the Finno-Ugric peoples’ conference, the city was completely empty, there were neither Khanty, nor Mansi. We were just photographed, interviewed, and no one came to the master class, not even the organizer. We were sitting in the middle of an empty University, and suddenly we saw a group of children and women. It turned out that this was a theatrical project from the village of Kazym. They told us that they had driven a thousand kilometers to get to our master class. Then we drew the first four comics in Khanty. This were children who study in a boarding school. Their desire to come to the master class, their real stories got to our souls. The next year we went to the Kazym, passing by Khanty-Mansiysk. And we got right to the summer children’s camp, where they use national games and accustom kids to the national culture, prepare performances with directors from different cities and countries. 

We realized we needed villages because that is where the real stories are and human contact with the language is more natural. 

It was very difficult to get to the Sámi. Valentina Sovkina, the chairman of the Sámi Parliament of the Kola Peninsula, helped us. As a result, we were able to communicate with Norwegian and Finnish Sámi. It is interesting that they write in Latin, and Russian Sámi — in Cyrillic, there is a language barrier. In addition, there is a psychological and information distance, especially due to what is said in the news on TV. When the Finnish Sámi see the exhibition of comics, they understand the everything is written there in the same words, but in the other signs. First, they reluctantly come to them, make efforts even to read the word «тӣррв» («hello»). But when they finally do, they feel so good! Although the Cyrillic alphabet seems to be an insurmountable barrier, however, the language helps to unite people. 

«People who speak their native language in addition to Russian are poorly valued» 

— We faced administrative problems. Our contacts are activists. And if they occupy administrative or public positions, they are afraid to participate in international projects. It is difficult to find those who are not afraid. For example, it happened to our contact in Mordovia. But then, through social networks, we found an electrician working in the suburbs, and he gave us the best contacts in the village where Erzya live. Thus a language activist doesn’t have to be a teacher. He can be an electrician (everyone has his own fate) or someone else — the main thing that he loves and knows the language. 

We asked local organizers to gather people who really care about the language. There were times when, for example, library staff thought they owed something to us or someone else. And their comics were not about the language, not about the people, but rather about «the work of a pioneer organization». Sometimes it is very difficult to disclose local people, maybe they do not trust us enough. People do not think that someone might be interested in their language and culture. And people happen to be disappointed: one knows the language, but does not believe that someone needs it. Unfortunately, no one values people who speak their native language, no one tells them: «You are so cool, so good, you are the best».

The project’s funding has already finished. If we are invited, we are happy to go, but we use the money of a host. The final seminar was held in April in St. Petersburg, where we were able to take our most active participants to. In July, we are going to the language festival in Norway, there will be a master class for teachers of North Sámi and an exhibition of comics. The main part will be an exhibition of different Sámi languages. We want to make them visible, that is the most important thing. Russia also hosts exhibitions in different cities. 

When there were the first comics, we began to carry them wherever we went: we showed them in Saransk University, among Tver Karelians in Likhoslavl’, in the museum of the Votic culture in Leningrad Oblast. 

We have also produced postcards-comics, which are drawn by teachers, and developed a website. Now we are working on the layout of the book on the results of the project. It is hard to include all the comics related to languages and culture without offending someone. It is planned to be published in three languages — Russian, Finnish, English — at the expense of the Finnish publishing house. 
Photos: 7x7-journal


«The variety of languages would help to soften the image of Russia»

— There is a risk that during the International Year of Indigenous Languages [UN has chosen 2019] many events will be held for the record. I think we should make every effort to show, what languages we have, to other countries. Russia has a negative image in the West — the aggressor country. The diversity of our languages — Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and many others — would soften the image of the country, would make it more humane, would arouse greater interest in Russia among tourists. My foreign friends, when they have the opportunity, prefer to go to the national republics, buy souvenirs in national languages — postcards, magnets, cups — and give them to their friends and relatives. 

If I were asked what to do during the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I would say that any language conference should be accompanied by a comic book exhibition. It does not take much space, but makes the background interesting, and it is clear that languages, alphabets, words, stories are all different, they can be compared. I would invite young bands performing in national languages to show that this is not only the older generation’s culture, but it also belongs to young people. 

Because everyone loves comics 

Maria Igusheva is 27 years old, she has graduated from Syktyvkar State University and now is the editor of the newspaper «Yӧlӧga», which is published in the Komi language. 
Maria Igusheva  is the editor of the newspaper «Yӧlӧga». Photo: 7x7-journal

«Shy to speak their native language»

— In 2015–2016, we published comics, which were drawn by graduates of the local Gymnasium of Arts, in our newspaper and social networks. Based on the mythology of Komi, they turned out to be beautiful, bright, and unusual. These works were noticed by the organizer of the project Anna Voronkova, she contacted us and introduced us to the Living Language Projects, told us about the comics in national languages in other regions, and invited to participate in master classes and to organize them together in Syktyvkar and Bogorodsk. The entire editorial office of the newspaper has provided all possible assistance: looking for activists, teachers, students, anyone who could find it interesting and useful to attend the master class. Found the room, organized the accommodation, met people at the airport — an organizational routine. 

The master classes require groups of about ten people. First there is an introductory part — Sanna Hukkanen, one of the project organizers, briefly tells the story of its creation and why the choice has fallen on comics. Then she explains how to choose a story for the comic, highlight main moments, because the participants have only four pictures to convey their thoughts. She shows the elements that help to reveal the emotions and movements of the characters, tells about some peculiar hand-drawn elements of comics. The storyboarding begins: Sanna has a look at drafts, corrects them and gives advice, and only then we draw on a large format. The master class ends with a discussion of the work and giving out the manuals with all the necessary information. So drawing skills are not necessary! 

I know that there are such teachers who had made similar comics on the lessons of Komi literature based on books, and they all turned out to be great. Comics are digitized immediately after the master class (we published them in our newspaper together with an article about the event), and the original works are shown in exhibitions, seminars and forums related to the language. 

I enjoyed it very much! The modernity of the Living Language Projects is very attractive, because everyone loves comix, and besides, they are connected with creativity and with the native language. I think the opportunity to be creative and to show one’s works to others attracts young people the most. Sanna and Anna focused not only on the usual comics — they began to make postcards and distribute them during their master classes. 

We are still following the project and telling about it in our newspaper, because many believe that the Komi language is dying out, but that is not true, and we are trying to prove the opposite. Such an interesting project confirms this once again. In the Republic, for example, few young people speak Komi — after moving from villages to cities, many of them are shy to communicate in their native language, as if it was not fashionable and no one needed that. Only in my fifth year in the University I learned that my fellow student knew Komi too. In my school, in the village of Bolshelug, Komi and Russian remain alongside, are studied together, while many schools throughout the country preferred teaching local history to native languages lessons. The Living Language Projects gives teachers an opportunity to bring something new to the lessons, to make them more interesting for children, and our editorial board tries to provide them with helpful information. 

«A key to everything» 

— The interest of people of other nationalities in the cultural aspects of the Komi language is also visible. In Syktyvkar, the capital of the Republic, the influence of indigenous peoples is manifested in design, books, and architecture, the Komi ornament, heroes of folklore and mythology are constantly used even in advertising. This is very important, it shows respect for the language, when the residents, who are not involved into the local culture from birth, still know and remember national traditions. 

I do not mean to sound pretentious, but language is the key to our people. Literature, mythology, stories, prose, poetry — those are the things Komi and other languages are based on. If there is no language, then there will be no key to all these original things, and then they will simply disappear. 

The state should play an important role, support national languages, and save them. Syktyvkar has funding for the language sector, for example, the Finno-Ugric Laboratory Project, which brings the Komi language to the Internet. Dictionaries, lessons for beginners, all sorts of interactive materials, programs, a keyboard layout in Komi — a lot of things which are difficult to do technically without help, but which make the language modern. 

I am glad that I began to hear my native speech more and more often in my everyday life. I can just go through Syktyvkar by bus and hear people talking to each other in Komi, or I can talk to a shop assistant. Sometimes I hear it even in the cinema. And it is not just about old people, but young people who discuss their school, friends, the weather, everything else. 

Komi is my native language, and although I have lived in Syktyvkar for a long time, there is more of it in my life than of Russian. I speak Komi with my parents, friends, colleagues, I read, write, think in it. And I think it should not surprise, cause pride or, on the contrary, shame, it is just normal. 

Today you will rarely hear the Karelian speech in the streets 


Elina Potapova is a journalist of the newspaper «Oma Mua», which is published in the Karelian language by publishing house «Periodica» in Petrozavodsk. The newspaper publishes comics created by participants of the project. 
Elina Potapova is a journalist of the newspaper «Oma Mua». 7x7-journal

Karelian summer as an occasion for comics

— I joined the project «Finno-Ugric Comics» in 2017: in spring, Anna Voronkova invited us to Moscow for a round table discussion of the problems of language saving, and in autumn a large master class was held in the House of the Karelian Language, in the village of Vedlozero. There I plunged into the topic. Then I held master classes as well: one took place last year in the Karelian village of Jessoila, and two more in Petrozavodsk, within the project «National school of Karelian indigenous peoples» of the public organization «Nevond» for students and pensioners. 

Comics are an interesting way to draw attention to languages. The format is simple, but this is the thing for a newspaper. They are interesting for people of all ages: young and old. 

It is especially cool is when a person can draw. Although in this case the ability to draw is not so important as the language proficiency. To be honest, I do not know how to draw, and at the master classes I mostly speak about how comics help to popularize the language. The hardest part is figuring out what the comic will be about, because you have only four slides. 

We have been publishing comics in our newspaper since 2017. Subjects are very different: jokes, events, holidays. Last year, for example, the weather in June was not very pleasant, and a comic about a cat and short Karelian summer was made. 

In April, the final seminar of the project was held in St. Petersburg. We talked about interesting events related to language saving that are held in the regions, and, of course, drew. We even came up with an idea of creating a single Finno-Ugric hero and one big comic about him. 

How to love the language 

— Today you will rarely hear the Karelian speech in the streets of Karelia. In my opinion, the older generation is to blame in some way. My native language is Russian, although all of my paternal relatives are Karelians and maternal are Veps. As a child, I did not hear the Veps language at all, sometimes I heard Karelian. My father and grandmother spoke Karelian in the village, but I could not understand them, it was irritating. I learned the language only when I had entered Petrozavodsk State University, the faculty of Baltic-Finnish Philology and Culture [in 2013 it became a department of the faculty of Philology]. 

Now it is difficult to judge why I was not taught Karelian in the family or sent to the Finno-Ugric school. And I learned that grandpa spoke Veps only a few years after his death. Why hadn’t he taught my mother to speak the language? One of the reasons might be that this generation had associated national language with the village, so young people, moving to the city, distanced themselves. As a result, the generations were disconnected. 

Speaking about the problems of saving the Karelian language, it is usually remembered that it has no state status [according to the laws of the Russian Federation concerning national languages, the alphabets of the state languages of the Russian Federation and the state languages of the republics use Cyrillic graphics, and the Karelian writing system is based on Latin]. But I do not think that the status would have changed the situation fundamentally. The most important thing is the desire of residents to know the language. Status will give more opportunities, but it will not make you love the language. 

Another problem is the application field of the language for school and even more university graduates: there are few jobs for specialists with knowledge of Karelian. 

An interesting product is necessary 

— We have public organizations which seek to save native languages, for example, the House of the Karelian Language in Vedlozero, where a «language nest» was established for preschoolers. The children speak Karelian there. 

In our newspaper we often tell about people who learn Karelian or speak it. For example, recently I wrote about a girl in Moscow who had become interested in the Karelian culture and language and begun to study them. She teaches the gusli and the kantele, and she has even recorded a Karelian song! And in Karelia, a resident of Segezha has got her own folk band, and its participants sing in Karelian. I also wrote about one student of the Karelian language courses. She spoke it in childhood, but her parents died, gradually she forgot it all. She associated the language with her home, so she wanted to brush up on it. This is generally typical for elderly people who come to the courses: many understand Karelian, but cannot speak or read and write. But we cannot say that the majority of students are elderly people. The half of them are young. It would be good if classes were held more often than once a week. 

To interest young people, it is necessary to make an interesting product, including in the media. Comics are a good example. We need more Internet-projects and mobile applications. In this regard, I like Udmurtia. There are young writers and musicians who write and sing in their native language. They are progressive, they have applications, a lot of information on the Internet, everything can be found using hashtags. We are not as active. 

In 2018, we have opened the Resource language media center of Karelians, Veps, and Finns in publishing house «Periodika». There are events in national languages or thematic events in Russian: gymnastics in Karelian, culinary and creative workshops, «Smart Friday» (an evening of short lectures). We try to come up with something new all the time in order to show that learning and knowing the language is interesting. 
Photo: 7x7-journal



Valentina SOVKINA: 
Everything should come together for the revival of the Sámi language 

Valentina Sovkina is the head of the Kola Sámi radio. In 2010, at the first meeting of the Sámi Parliament of the Kola Peninsula, she was elected its Chairman. 
Valentina Sovkina is the head of the Kola Sámi radio. Photo: 7x7-journal

«We dive into dictionaries»

— I enjoy drawing and have always wanted to know how to create a comic. I came across the Living Language Project I on the Internet. It all started with a simple message on vk.com, I was offered to take part in the project about saving the Finno-Ugric languages. 

A comic is a small story. Even one word can be an episode of life. With this project we are talking through pictures and words. Our comics participate in exhibitions, are distributed through brochures, postcards, stickers. 

At the same time, you do not have to be an artist to create comiсs. This goes well with the study of the language — a doodle man speaking Sámi. 

The aim of the project is to teach as many people as possible so that they can teach and spread the experience themselves. In this case, comics are one of the methods of language learning. To write a word or phrase correctly, we dive into dictionaries, ask native speakers for advice. You have to learn the word from various angles. How to decline, to make phrases, to use folklore. 

«If people speak it, it is going to live» 

— I’m sure we will not just stick to drawing comics. Our communication with the organizers of the project proved that. First, they came to us, voluntarily. We only needed to get together and find the room. Then we invited them purposefully, and not only to Lovozero, but also to the villages of Yona and Loparskaya. Then the Sámi of Norway and Finland joined us. 

Obviously, the project needs support. But not only financial. A lot depends on the heads of institutions, on their interest. In Yona, for example, the head of the village house of culture Tatyana Ovchinnikova showed up. The room was organized, but without heating. Representatives of the art school, students and local residents came from the neighboring town. It was cold, but everyone worked for five hours. Tea and humor warmed us. Everything can be arranged if you want. 

Today we can only dream of Sámi to get the status of the state language. Sámi in the Murmansk Oblast are only 0.2 percent of the total population. Republics and Autonomous Okrugs can choose an official second language on the basis of legislative acts, and we do not even have a law about the Sámi language. Our wishes do not always match with the wishes of the governance of the region and country. But why despair, the initiative must be shown. 

Today the Sámi language is taught only in Lovozersky district. Over the past ten years, the programme has shrunk immensely. The Sámi language used to be taught at schools from the first to the fourth grade, but today it is taught only in the first grade. There are also some lessons at the Northern National College, but only in the first year and only 36 hours a year. 

I believe that it is necessary to start with the family and kindergarten, further — more. Native speakers are required to revive the language within a family. And if there is none? That means we need to create a sound background. That is why we need a regional law on the language, under which there should be budget to save and revive the language. 

In today’s reality, I cannot say for sure whether there are many chances for the revival of the Sámi language at least in some form. Everything should come together: the desire of the people themselves, the support of the state, not just for the record, but real support. From laws on the Sámi language to creation of its own media. It is no secret that the language is learned better when it is heard in the background. If people speak it, then it is going to live. 


This story is originally posted on the 7x7-journal.ru and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between media organizations and bloggers in the Barents region




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