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An approximate location of the Kolyma region
Kolyma region, arctic northeast Siberia

Kolyma (Russian: Колыма́, IPA: ) is a region located in the Russian Far East. It is bounded by the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Sea of Okhotsk to the south. The region gets its name from the Kolyma River and mountain range, parts of which were not discovered until 1926. Today the region consists roughly of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Magadan Oblast.

The area, part of which is within the Arctic Circle, has a subarctic climate with very cold winters lasting up to six months of the year. Permafrost and tundra cover a large part of the region. Average winter temperatures range from -19 °C to -38 °C (even lower in the interior), and average summer temperatures, from +3 °C to +16 °C. There are rich reserves of gold, silver, tin, tungsten, mercury, copper, antimony, coal, oil, and peat. Twenty-nine zones of possible oil and gas accumulation have been identified in the Sea of Okhotsk shelf. Total reserves are estimated at 3.5 billion tons of equivalent fuel, including 1.2 billion tons of oil and 1.5 billion m3 of gas.[1]

The principal town Magadan has nearly 100'000 inhabitants and is the largest port in north-eastern Russia. It has a large fishing fleet and remains open year-round thanks to icebreakers. Magadan is served by the nearby Sokol Airport. There are many public and private farming enterprises. Gold mines, pasta and sausage plants, fishing companies, and a distillery form the city's industrial base.[1]


  • Pre-History 1
  • History 2
    • Emergence of the Gulag camps 2.1
      • The Arctic camps 2.1.1
      • Dalstroy officials 2.1.2
      • Calendar of historical events 2.1.3
    • Post-Dalstroy developments 2.2
      • Industrial and economic evolution 2.2.1
      • Last political prisoners 2.2.2
    • Accounts of the Kolyma Gulag camps 2.3
    • Estimating the number of victims 2.4
  • Ecology 3
    • Paleoecology 3.1
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • Sources 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8
    • Links to Maps 8.1


During archaeological investigations of Paleolithic sites on the Angara, in 1936 the unique Stone Age site of Buret’ was discovered which yielded an anthropomorphic sculpture, skulls of rhinoceroses, and surface and semisubterranean dwellings. These houses were analogous, on the one hand, to Paleolithic European houses, and on the other, to ethnographically studied houses of the Eskimos, Chukchi, and Koryaks (Okladnikov 1941c, 1941d).[2][3][4]

The indigenous peoples of this region include the Evens, Koryaks, Yupiks, Chukchis, Orochs, Chuvans and Itelmens, who traditionally lived from fishing along the Sea of Okhotsk coast or from reindeer herding in the River Kolyma valley.


Under Joseph Stalin's rule, Kolyma became the most notorious region for the Gulag labor camps. Tens of thousands or more people may have died en route to the area or in the Kolyma's series of gold mining, road building, lumbering, and construction camps between 1932 and 1954. It was Kolyma's reputation that caused Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, to characterize it as the "pole of cold and cruelty" in the Gulag system. The Mask of Sorrow monument in Magadan commemorates all those who died in the Kolyma forced-labour camps and the recently dedicated Church of the Nativity remembers the victims in its icons[5] and Stations of the Camps.[6]

Emergence of the Gulag camps

anti-Kulak campaign and the government's internal war to force collectivization on the USSR's peasantry. These prisoners formed a readily available workforce.

Butugychag Tin Mine - A Gulag camp in the Kolyma area

The initial efforts to develop the region began in 1932, with the building of the town of Magadan by forced labor.[7] (Many projects in the USSR were already using forced labor, most notably the White Sea-Baltic Canal.) After a gruelling train ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway prisoners were disembarked at one of several transit camps (such as Nakhodka and later Vanino) and transported across the Sea of Okhotsk to the natural harbor chosen for Magadan's construction. Conditions aboard the ships were harsh. According to a 1987 article[8] in Time Magazine: "During the 1930s the only way to reach Magadan was by ship from Khabarovsk, which created an island psychology and the term Gulag archipelago. Within the crowded prison ships thousands died during transportation. One survivor's memoir recounts that the prison ship Dzhurma was caught in the autumn ice in 1933 while trying to get to the mouth of the Kolyma River. When it reached port the following spring, it carried only crew and guards. All 12,000 prisoners were missing, left dead on the ice." It turns out that this incident, widely reported since it was first mentioned in a book published in 1947, could not have happened as the ship Dzhurma was not in Soviet hands until mid 1935. A detailed analysis of this legend can be found in the book Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West[9]

In 1932 expeditions pushed their way into the interior of the Kolyma, embarking on the construction of the Kolyma Highway, which was to become known as the Road of Bones. Eventually, about 80 different camps dotted the region of the uninhabited taiga.

The original director of the Kolyma camps was Eduard Berzin, a Cheka officer. Berzin was later removed (1937) and shot during the period of the Great Purges in the USSR.

The Arctic camps

Prisoners at a Kolyma gold mine

In 1937, at the height of the Purges, Stalin ordered an intensification of the hardships prisoners were forced to endure.[10] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel quotes camp commander Naftaly Frenkel as establishing the new law of the Archipelago: "We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don't need him anymore."[11] The system of hard labor and minimal or no food reduced most prisoners to helpless "goners" (dokhodyaga, in Russian). Conditions varied depending on the state of the country.

Many of the prisoners in Kolyma were academics or intellectuals. Among them was Mikhail Kravchuk (Krawtschuk), a Ukrainian mathematician who by the early 1930s had received considerable acclaim in the West. After a summary trial, apparently for not being willing to take part in the accusations of some of his colleagues, he was sent to Kolyma where he died in 1942. Hard work in the Soviet labor camp, harsh climate and meager food, poor health as well as accusations and abandonment by most of his colleagues, took their toll. Kravchuk perished in Magadan in Eastern Siberia, about 4,000 miles (6,000 km) from the place where he was born. Kravchuk's last article had appeared soon after his arrest in 1938. However, after this publication, Kravchuk's name was stricken from books and journals.[12]

The prisoner population of Kolyma was substantially increased in 1946 with the arrival of thousands of former Soviet POWs liberated by Allied forces or the Red Army at the close of World War II.[13] Those judged guilty of collaboration with the enemy frequently received ten or twenty-five year prison sentences to a gulag, including Kolyma.[13]

There were, however, some exceptions. Léon Theremin, an inventor, was rumored to have been seized by Soviet agents in the United States and forced to return to the Soviet Union, but actually returned voluntarily. He was, on Joseph Stalin's order, imprisoned at Butyrka and later sent to work in the Kolyma gold mines. Although rumors of his execution were widely circulated, Theremin was, in fact, put to work in a sharashka or secret research laboratory, together with other scientists and engineers, including aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev and rocket scientist Sergei Korolyov (also a Kolyma inmate). The Soviet Union rehabilitated Theremin in 1956.

The Kolyma camps were converted to (mostly) free labor after 1954, and in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev ordered a general amnesty that freed many prisoners. It is estimated that from 1930 to the mid 1950s, 250,000 to over one million people were killed at the camp.[14]

Dalstroy officials

Dalstroy was the agency created to manage exploitation of the Kolyma area, based principally on the use of forced labour.

In the words of Azerbaijani prisoner Ayyub Baghirov, "The entire administration of the Dalstroy - economic, administrative, physical and political — was in the hands of one person who was invested with many rights and privileges." The officials in charge of Dalstroy, i.e., the Kolyma Gulag camps were:

  • Eduard Petrovich Berzin, 1932–1937
  • Karp Aleksandrovich Pavlov, 1937–1939.
  • Ivan Fedorovich Nikishev, 1940–1948.
  • Ivan Grigorevich Petrenko, 1948–1950.
  • I.L. Mitrakov, from 1950 until Dalstroy was taken over by the Ministry of Metallurgy on 18 March 1953.[15]

Calendar of historical events

Soviet NKVD ticket for Polish prisoner (journalist and writer Anatol Krakowiecki) released from Kolyma GULAG camp- spring 1942

A detailed calendar of events:

  • 1928–1929: Gold mines established in the Kolyma River region. Commencement of regular mining operations
  • 13 November 1931: Establishment of Dalstroy
  • 4 February 1932: Eduard Berzin, Manager of Dalstroy, arrives with the first 10 prisoners.
  • 1934: The headcount increases to 30,000 inmates.
  • 1937: The number of inmates increases to over 70.000; 51,500 kg of gold mined
  • June 1937: Stalin reprimands the Kolyma commandants for their undue leniency towards the inmates.
  • December 1937: Berzin is charged with espionage and subsequently tried and shot in August 1938.
  • March 4, 1938: Dalstroy is put under the jurisdiction of NKVD, USSR.
  • December 1938: Osip Mandelstam, an eminent Russian poet, dies in a transit camp en route to Kolyma.
  • 1939: Number of inmates now 138,200.
  • 11 October 1939: Commandants Pavlov (Dalstroy) and Stepan Garanin (Sevvostlag) sacked from their posts. Garanin subsequently shot.
  • 1941: Headcount of inmates reaches 190,000. Also some 3,700 Dalstroy contract workers.
  • May 23, 1944: US Vice President Henry A. Wallace arrives for a NKVD-hosted 25-day tour of Magadan, Kolyma, and the Russian Far East.
  • October 1945: Camp for the Japanese prisoners of war is established in Magadan, to provide extra labour.
  • 1952: 199,726 inmates, the highest ever in the history of the Kolyma camps and Dalstroy.
  • May 1952: According to commandant Mitrakov, Sevvoslag is dissolved, Dalstroy transformed into the General Board of Labour Camps
  • March 1953: After Stalin's death, Dalstroy transferred to the Ministry of Metallurgy, camp units come under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Ministry of Justice.
  • September 1953: Dalstroy camp units taken over by the newly established Management Board of the North-Eastern Corrective Labour Camps. Harsh camp regime gradually relaxed.
  • 1953–1956: Period of mass amnesties and the release of most political prisoners. Some camp closures begin.
  • 1957: Dalstroy liquidated. Many of the former prisoners continued to work in the mines with a modified status and a few new prisoners arrived, at least until the early 1970s.

Post-Dalstroy developments

The Chukot Autonomous Okrug[16] site provides details of developments after the official closure of the camps. In 1953, the Magadan Oblast (or region) was established. Dalstroy was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Metallurgy and later to the Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy.

Industrial and economic evolution

Industrial gold-mining started in 1958 leading to the development of mining settlements, industrial enterprises, power plants, hydro-electric dams, power transmission lines and improved roads. By the 1960s, the region's population exceeded 100,000. With the dissolution of Dalstroy, the Soviets adopted new labor policies. While the prison labor was still important, it mainly consisted of common criminals. New manpower was recruited from all Soviet nationalities on a voluntary basis, to make up for the sudden lack of political prisoners. Young men and women were lured to the frontier land of Kolyma with the promise of high earnings and better living. But many decided to leave. The region's prosperity suffered under Soviet liberal policies in the end of the 1980s and 1990s with a considerable reduction in population, apparently by 40% in Magadan.[17] A U.S. report from the late 1990s gives details of the region's economic shortfall citing outdated equipment, bankruptcies of local companies and lack of central support. It does however report substantial investments from the United States and the governor's optimism for future prosperity based on revival of the mining industries.[18]

Last political prisoners

Dalstroy and the camps did not close down completely. The Kolyma authority, which was reorganised in 1958/59 (31 December 1958), finally closed in 1968. However the mining activities did not stop. Indeed, government structures still exist today under the Ministry of Natural Resources. In some cases, the same individuals seem to have stayed on over the years under new management. There are indications that the political prisoners were gradually phased out over the years but it was only as a result of Boris Yeltsin's far reaching reforms in the 1990s that the very last prisoners were released from Kolyma. The Russian author Andrei Amalrik appears to have been one of the last high-profile political prisoners to be sent to Kolyma. In 1970, he published two books: Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? and Involuntary Journey to Siberia. As a result, he was arrested for "defaming the Soviet state" in November 1970 and sentenced to hard labour, apparently in Kolyma, for what turned out to be a total of almost five years.[19]

Accounts of the Kolyma Gulag camps

A detailed description of conditions in the camps is provided by Varlam Shalamov in his Kolyma Tales. In Dry Rations he writes: "Each time they brought in the soup... it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions—love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies...."

During and after the

  • Detailed Russian map of the Kolyma Gulag from the site Jewish Community in Magadan
  • Russian Map of the Gulag camps across the Soviet Union from the Memorial site

Links to Maps

  • Kolyma; the Land of Gold and Death A personal on-line account in nine chapters by Stanislaw J. Kowalski, a Polish prisoner in Kolyma, with numerous references
  • The Soviet Gulag Era in Pictures, 1927-1953 Photographs, several of Kolyma, collected by James Duncan
  • Kolyma - Stalin's Notorious Prison Camps in Siberia, Personal Account by Ayyub Baghirov in Azerbaijan International, Vol. 14:1 (Spring 2006), pp. 58–71.
  • Work in the Gulag from the Stalin's Gulag section of the Online Gulag Museum with a short description and images of Kolyma
  • Italian-American artist Thomas Sgovio (1916–1997) created a series of drawings and paintings, based on his life as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag
  • Shalamv Kolyma Tales

External links

  • Applebaum, Anne, Gulag: A History, Broadway Books, 2003, hardcover, 720 pp., ISBN 0-7679-0056-1.
  • Bardach, Janusz / Gleeson, Kathleen Man Is Wolf to Man : Surviving the Gulag, University of California Press, c1998, 392 p., ISBN 0-520-21352-1
  • Ginzburg, Eugenia, Journey into the Whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 2002, 432 pp., ISBN 0-15-602751-8.
  • Ginzburg, Eugenia, Within the Whirlwind, Harvest/HBJ Book, 1982, 448 pp., ISBN 0-15-697649-8.
  • Jacobs, Gerard, Goudkoorts aka Goldfever (in Dutch), Contact Books, Amsterdam, 1993, ISBN 90-254-0357-3
  • Kizny, Tomasz, Gulag, Firefly Books, 2004, 495 p. ISBN 1-55297-964-4
  • Khlevniuk, Oleg, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror, Yale University Press, c2004, 418 p., ISBN 0-300-09284-9
  • MacCannon, John: Red Arctic: Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19-511436-1
  • OstEuropa, various authors (in German): Das Lager schreiben, Varlam Šalamov und die Aufarbeitung des Gulag. Berlin (BWV) 2007 (= Osteuropa 6/2007), 440 p., ISBN 978-3-8305-1219-6
  • Medvedev, Roy: Let History Judge: the origins and consequences of Stalinism, New York, Vintage Books 1973, c1971, ISBN 0-394-71928-X
  • Michael Shields, Martyrs of Magadan: Memories of the Gulag, Aid to the Church in Need (UK), 2007, 312 pp., ISBN 978-0-9553339-4-1
  • Tzouliadis, Tim, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia, Penguin Books, 2008, ISBN 978-014-3115427

Further reading

  • Bollinger, Martin J., Stalin’s slave ships : Kolyma, the Gulag fleet, and the role of the West, Praeger, 2003, 217 p., ISBN 0-275-98100-2
  • Conquest, Robert: Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, 1978, 254 p. ISBN 0-670-41499-9
  • Conquest, Robert: The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. 1968.
  • Conquest, Robert: The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, May 1990, hardcover, ISBN 0-19-505580-2; trade paperback, Oxford, September, 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8
  • Getman, Nikolai: The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal System, The Jamestown Foundation, 2001, 131 p., ISBN 0-9675009-1-5
  • Hochschild, Adam, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 304 pp., paperback: ISBN 0-618-25747-0
  • Radzinsky, Edvard, Stalin: the first in-depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia's secret archives, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 594 p., ISBN 0-340-60619-3
  • Shalamov, Varlam, Kolyma Tales, Penguin Books, 1995, 528 pp., ISBN 0-14-018695-6.
  • Solomon, Michel, Magadan, Princeton, Auerbach Publishers, 1971, 243 p. ISBN 0-87769-085-5


  1. ^ a b "Magadan Region - Kommersant Moscow". 
  2. ^ Okladnikov (1941c). 
  3. ^ Okladnikov (1941d). 
  4. ^ Dikov, N.N.; Clark, Gerlad H. (1965). "The Stone Age of Kamchatka and the Chukchi Peninsula in the Light of New Archaeological Data". Arctic Anthropology 3 (1). Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Alaska Notes: communist morality, stalinism, gulag, Kolyma,Magadan". 
  8. ^,8816,964077,00.html
  9. ^  
  10. ^ "Gendercide Watch: Stalin's Purges". 
  11. ^ Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 49.
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b Conquest, Robert, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Viking Press, (1978), ISBN 0-670-41499-9, pp. 228-229
  14. ^ Adam Hochschild, The Unquiet Ghost
  15. ^ [2] Archived December 9, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^
  17. ^ Yakutia ASSR and the Sakha Republic from Cosmic Elk. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
  18. ^ Magadan Region Update by Bisnis Vladivostok Representative Svetlana Kuzmichenko, 1998, U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service and U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
  19. ^ John Keep: Andrei Amalrik and "1984", Russian Review, Vol. 30, No.4. (Oct., 1971), pp. 335-345. Retrieved 21 January 2007.
  20. ^ George Bien, Gulag Survivor in the Boston Globe, June 22, 2005
  21. ^ Walk on Gulagland KolymaDocumentary film by Zoltan Szalkai. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  22. ^ Br. Gene Thompson: The Road to Death- Retrieved 17 January 2007
  23. ^ Vadim Kozin, One Way Trip from Petersburg to Magadan from the Little Russia in US site. Retrieved 13 February 2007. Archived October 17, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ "Goud - Vergeten in Siberië (1994)". IMDb. 19 September 1994. 
  25. ^ "Theo Uittenbogaard". IMDb. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ Nikolai Getman: The Gulag collection. Retrieved 13 February 2007.
  29. ^ Norman Polmar "Stalin's Slave Ships: Kolyma, the Gulag Fleet, and the Role of the West (review)", Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 180-182
  30. ^
  31. ^ FEOW. "609: Kolyma". Freshwater Ecoregions of the World. Nature Conservancy. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  32. ^ Boeskorov, G.G. (2009). "Preliminary study of a mummified woolly rhinoceros from the lower reaches of the Kolyma River". Doklady Biological Sciences 424 (1). Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  33. ^ Kurten, Bjorn (1964). "The evolution of the polar bear, Ursus maritimus Phipps". Acta Zoologica Fennica 108: 1–30. 


See also

The polar bear most likely evolved here.[33]

During the Pleistocene this part of Beringia the ecology was quite different than now with the extinct Wooly mammoth and the wooly rhinoceros present.[32]


This ecoregion encompasses the drainages of Arctic rivers from the Indigirka River eastward to Chaunskaya Guba Bay. In the west, the Indigirka River drainage is separated from the Khroma River and Yana rivers by the spurs of the Polousnyy Kryazh Range and the Cherskogo Range.[31]


Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, carried out an extensive investigation of the gulags, and explained in a lecture in 2003, that it's extremely difficult not only to document the facts given the extent of the cover-up but to bring the truth home.[30]

It is therefore impossible to provide final figures on the number of victims who died in Kolyma. Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, now admits that his original estimate of three million victims was far too high. In his article Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th Century,[28] Matthew White estimates the number of those who died at 500,000. In Stalin's Slave Ships, Martin Bollinger undertakes a careful analysis of the number of prisoners who could have been transported by ship to Magadan between 1932 and 1953 (some 900,000) and the probable number of deaths each year (averaging 27%). This produces figures significantly below earlier estimates but, as the author emphasizes, his calculations are by no means definitive. In addition to the number of deaths, the dreadful conditions of the camps and the hardships experienced by the prisoners over the years need to be taken into account. In his review[29] of Bollinger's book, Norman Polmar refers to 130,000 victims who died at Kolyma. As Bollinger reports in his book, the 3,000,000 estimate originated with the CIA in the 1950s and appears to be a flawed estimate. This number is also estimated by the last survivors.

In an account of a visit to Magadan by NKVD. Biryukov, whose father was in the Gulag at the time he was born, has begun researching the location of graves. He believed some of the bodies were still partially preserved in the permafrost.

The amount of hard evidence in regard to Kolyma is extremely limited. Unfortunately, no reliable archives exist about the total number of victims of Stalinism; all numbers are estimates. In his book, Stalin (1996), Edvard Radzinsky explains how Stalin, while systematically destroying his comrades-in-arms "at once obliterated every trace of them in history. He personally directed the constant and relentless purging of the archives." That practice continued to exist after the death of the dictator.

Estimating the number of victims

Finally, Ukrainian prisoner [27]

  • In July 1993 Vadim Kozin told his story, sang and played his piano probably for the last time in the documentary on the Gulag in the far east of Siberia GOUD Vergeten in Siberië aka GOLD Lost in Siberia[24] by Dutch author Gerard Jacobs and filmmaker Theo Uittenbogaard[25]

One of the most famous political prisoners in Kolyma was Vadim Kozin, possibly Russia's most popular romantic tenor, who was sent to the camps in February 1945, apparently for refusing to write a song about Stalin. Although he was initially freed in 1950 and could return to his singing career, he was soon framed by his enemies on charges of homosexuality and sent back to the camps. Though released once again several years later, he was never officially rehabilitated and remained in exile in Magadan where he died in 1994. Speaking to journalists in 1982, he explained how he had been forced to tour the camps: "The Polit bureau formed brigades which would, under surveillance, go on tours of the concentration camps and perform for the prisoners and the guards, including those of the highest rank."[23]

A vivid account of the conditions in Kolyma is that of Brother Gene Thompson of Kiev's Faith Mission. He recounts how he met Vyacheslav Palman, a prisoner who survived because he knew how to grow cabbages. Palman spoke of how guards read out the names of those to be shot every evening. On one occasion a group of 169 men were shot and thrown into a pit. Their fully clothed bodies were found after the ice melted in 1998.[22]

In Bitter Days of Kolyma, Ayyub Baghirov, an Azerbaijani accountant who was finally rehabilitated, provides details of his arrest, torture and sentencing to eight (finally to become 18) years imprisonment in a labour camp for refusing to incriminate a fellow official for financial irregularities. Describing the train journey to Siberia, he writes: "The terrible heat, the lack of fresh air, the unbearable overcrowded conditions all exhausted us. We were all half starved. Some of the elderly prisoners, who had become so weak and emaciated, died along the way. Their corpses were left abandoned alongside the railroad tracks."

Soviet Gold, the first autobiographical book written by Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, is almost entirely a description of the author's life in Magadan and the Kolyma gold fields.

[21] His story has also led to a film.[20]

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