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Anna Akhmatova
Akhmatova in 1922 (Portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin)
Akhmatova in 1922 (portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin)
Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko
23 June [O.S. 11 June] 1889
Odessa, Kherson Governorate, Russian Empire
Died 5 March 1966(1966-03-05) (aged 76)
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Occupation Poet, translator, memoirist
Literary movement Acmeism
Nikolay Gumilev
(m. 1910; div. 1918)

Vladimir Shilejko
(m. 1918; div. 1926)
Partner Nikolai Punin (died in GULAG labour camp in 1953)
Children Lev Gumilev

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko (23 June [O.S. 11 June] 1889 – 5 March 1966), better known by the pen name Anna Akhmatova, was one of the most significant Russian poets of 20th century. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965 and received second-most (three) nominations for the award the following year.

Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterised by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. The strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry. Her writing can be said to fall into two periods – the early work (1912–25) and her later work (from around 1936 until her death), divided by a decade of reduced literary output. Her work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities, and she is notable for choosing not to emigrate and remaining in the Soviet Union, acting as witness to the events around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.

Primary sources of information about Akhmatova's life are relatively scant, as war, revolution and the Soviet regime caused much of the written record to be destroyed. For long periods she was in official disfavour and many of those who were close to her died in the aftermath of the revolution. Akhmatova's first husband, Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviet secret police, and her son Lev Gumilyov and her common-law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in the Gulag, where Punin died.

Early life and family

Akhmatova was born at Bolshoy Fontan, a resort suburb of the Black Sea port of Odessa. Her father, Andrey Antonovich Gorenko, was a naval engineer and descendant from a noble Ukrainian cossack family, and her mother, Inna Erazmovna Stogova, was a descendant from the Russian nobility with close ties to Kiev.

Her family moved north to Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, when she was eleven months old. The family lived in a house on the corner of Shirokaya Street and Bezymyanny Lane (the building is no longer there today), spending summers from age 7 to 13 in a dacha near Sevastopol. She studied at the Mariinskaya High School, moving to Kiev (1906–10) and finished her schooling there, after her parents separated in 1905. She went on to study law at Kiev University, leaving a year later to study literature in St Petersburg.

Akhmatova started writing poetry at the age of 11, and was published in her late teens, inspired by the poets Nikolay Nekrasov, Jean Racine, Alexander Pushkin, Evgeny Baratynsky and the Symbolists; however, none of her juvenilia survives. Her sister Inna also wrote poetry though she did not pursue the practice and married shortly after high school. Akhmatova's father did not want to see any verses printed under his "respectable" name, so she chose to adopt her grandmother's distinctly Tatar surname 'Akhmatova' as a pen name.

Ахматова Н.Гумилев Л.Гумилев
Anna Akhmatova with her husband Nikolay Gumilev and their son, Lev, 1915

She met a young poet, Nikolay Gumilev, on Christmas Eve 1903. Gumilev encouraged her to write and pursued her intensely, making numerous marriage proposals starting in 1905. At 17 years old, in his journal Sirius, she published her first poem which could be translated as "On his hand you may see many glittering rings", (1907) signing it "Anna G." She soon became known in St Petersburg's artistic circles, regularly giving public readings. That year, she wrote unenthusiastically to a friend, "He has loved me for three years now, and I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do." She married Gumilev in Kiev in April 1910; however, none of Akhmatova's family attended the wedding. The couple honeymooned in Paris, and there she met and befriended the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

In late 1910, she came together with poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky to form the Guild of Poets. It promoted the idea of craft as the key to poetry rather than inspiration or mystery, taking themes of the concrete rather than the more ephemeral world of the Symbolists. Over time, they developed the influential Acmeist anti-symbolist school, concurrent with the growth of Imagism in Europe and America. From the first year of their marriage, Gumilev began to chafe against its constraints. She wrote that he had "lost his passion" for her and by the end of that year he left on a six-month trip to Africa.

She had "her first taste of fame", becoming renowned, not so much for her beauty, but for her intense magnetism and allure. She returned to visit Modigliani in Paris, where he created at least 20 paintings of her.

Akhmatova's son, Lev, was born in 1912, and would become a renowned Neo-Eurasianist historian.

Silver Age

Anna Akhmatova 1913-1914 by Savely Sorin
Anna Akhmatova in 1914

In 1912, the Guild of Poets published Akhmatova's book of verse Evening (Vecher) – the first of five in nine years. The small edition of 500 copies quickly sold out and she received around a dozen positive notices in the literary press. She exercised a strong selectivity for the pieces – including only 35 of the 200 poems she had written by the end of 1911. (She noted that Song of the Last Meeting, dated 29 September 1911, was her 200th poem). The book secured her reputation as a new and striking young writer, the poems Grey-eyed king, In the Forest, Over the Water, and I don't need my legs anymore making her famous. She later wrote "These naïve poems by a frivolous girl for some reason were reprinted thirteen times [...] And they came out in several translations. The girl herself (as far as I recall) did not foresee such a fate for them and used to hide the issues of the journals in which they were first published under the sofa cushions".

Akhmatova's second collection, The Rosary (or BeadsChetki) appeared in March 1914 and firmly established her as one of the most popular and sought after poets of the day. Thousands of women composed poems "in honour of Akhmatova", mimicking her style and prompting Akhmatova to exclaim: "I taught our women how to speak, but don't know how to make them silent". Her aristocratic manners and artistic integrity won her the titles "Queen of the Neva" and "Soul of the Silver Age," as the period came to be known in the history of Russian poetry. In Poem Without a Hero, the longest and one of the best known of her works, written many decades later, she would recall this as a blessed time of her life.

Akhmatova became close friends with Boris Pasternak. In July 1914, Akhmatova wrote "Frightening times are approaching/ Soon fresh graves will cover the land"; on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, marking the start of "the dark storm" of world war, civil war, revolution and totalitarian repression for Russia. The Silver Age came to a close.

Olga kardovskaya portret ahmatovoy 1914 szh 16
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya, 1914

Akhmatova had a relationship with the mosaic artist and poet Boris Anrep; many of her poems in the period are about him and he in turn created mosaics in which she is featured. She selected poems for her third collection, Belaya Staya (White Flock), in 1917, a volume which poet and critic Joseph Brodsky later described as writing of personal lyricism tinged with the "note of controlled terror". She later came to be memorialised by his description of her as "the keening muse". Essayist John Bayley describes her writing at this time as "grim, spare and laconic".

In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. They looked to a past in which the future was "rotting". In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Akhmatova's friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America, including Anrep, who escaped to England. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain.:

Akhmatova wrote of her own temptation to leave:

At the height of Akhmatova's fame, in 1918, she divorced her husband and that same year, though many of her friends considered it a mistake, Akhmatova married prominent Assyriologist and poet Vladimir Shilejko.

1920s and 1930s

In 1921, Akhmatova's former husband Nikolay Gumilev was prosecuted for his alleged role in a monarchist anti-Bolshevik conspiracy and in August was shot along with 61 others. According to the historian Rayfield, the murder of Gumilev was part of the state response to the Kronstadt Rebellion. The Cheka (secret police) blamed the rebellion on Petrograd's intellectuals, prompting the senior Cheka officer Yakov Agranov to forcibly extract the names of 'conspirators', from an imprisoned professor, guaranteeing them amnesty from execution. Agranov's guarantee proved to be meaningless. He sentenced dozens of the named persons to death, including Gumilev. Maxim Gorky and others appealed for leniency, but by the time Lenin agreed to several pardons, the condemned had been shot.

The executions had a powerful effect on the Russian intelligentsia, destroying the acmeist poetry group, and placing a stigma on Akhmatova and her son Lev (by Gumilev). Lev's later arrest during the purges and terrors of the 1930s was based on being his father's son. From a new Marxist perspective, Akhmatova's poetry was deemed to represent an introspective "bourgeois aesthetic", reflecting only trivial "female" preoccupations, not in keeping with these new revolutionary politics of the time. She was roundly attacked by the state and by former supporters and friends, and seen to be an anachronism. During what she termed "The Vegetarian Years", Akhmatova's work was unofficially banned by a party resolution of 1925 and she found it hard to publish, though she did not stop writing poetry. She made acclaimed translations of works by Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, and Giacomo Leopardi and pursued academic work on Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. She worked as a critic and essayist, though many USSR and foreign critics and readers concluded that she had died.

She had little food and almost no money; her son was denied access to study at academic institutions because of his parents' alleged anti-state activities. The nationwide repression and purges decimated her St Petersburg circle of friends, artists and intellectuals. Her close friend and fellow poet Mandelstam was deported and then sentenced to a Gulag labour camp, where he would die. Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counterrevolutionary activity. She would often queue for hours to deliver him food packages and plead on his behalf. She describes standing outside a stone prison:

Akhmatova wrote that by 1935 every time she went to see someone off at the train station as they went into exile, she'd find herself greeting friends at every step as so many of St Petersburg's intellectual and cultural figures would be leaving on the same train.

Akhmatova was a common-law wife to Nikolai Punin, an art scholar and lifelong friend, whom she stayed with until 1935. He also was repeatedly taken into custody, dying in the Gulag in 1953. Her tragic cycle Requiem documents her personal experience of this time; as she writes, "one hundred million voices shout" through her "tortured mouth".


In 1939, Stalin approved the publication of one volume of poetry, From Six Books; however, the collection was withdrawn and pulped after only a few months. In 1993, it was revealed that the authorities had bugged her flat and kept her under constant surveillance, keeping detailed files on her from this time, accruing some 900 pages of "denunciations, reports of phone taps, quotations from writings, confessions of those close to her". Although officially stifled, Akhmatova's work continued to circulate in secret. Akhmatova's close friend, chronicler Lydia Chukovskaya described how writers working to keep poetic messages alive used various strategies. A small trusted circle would, for example, memorise each other's works and circulate them only by oral means. She tells how Akhmatova would write out her poem for a visitor on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burnt in her stove. The poems were carefully disseminated in this way, but it is likely that many compiled in this manner were lost. "It was like a ritual," Chukovskaya wrote. "Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter."

During World War II, Akhmatova witnessed the 900-day Siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). In 1940, Akhmatova started her Poem without a Hero, finishing a first draft in Tashkent, but working on "The Poem" for twenty years and considering it to be the major work of her life, dedicating it to "the memory of its first audience – my friends and fellow citizens who perished in Leningrad during the siege". She was evacuated to Chistopol in spring of 1942 and then to greener, safer Tashkent in Uzbekistan, along with other artists, such as Shostakovich. During her time away she became seriously ill with typhus (she had suffered from severe bronchitis and tuberculosis as a young woman). On returning to Leningrad in May 1944, she writes of how disturbed she was to find "a terrible ghost that pretended to be my city".

She regularly read to soldiers in the military hospitals and on the front line; her later pieces seem to be the voice of those who had struggled and the many she had outlived. She moved away from romantic themes towards a more diverse, complex and philosophical body of work and some of her more patriotic poems found their way to the front pages of Pravda.

In 1946 the Central Committee of CPSU, acting on the orders from Stalin, started an official campaign against the "bourgeois", individualistic works by Akhmatova and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. She was condemned for a visit by the liberal, western, Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1945, and Andrei Zhdanov publicly labelled her her work "the poetry of an overwrought, upper-class lady". He banned her poems from publication in the journals Zvezda and Leningrad, accusing her of poisoning the minds of Soviet youth. Her surveillance was increased and she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers.

Berlin described his visit to her flat: "It was very barely furnished—virtually everything in it had, I gathered, been taken away—looted or sold—during the siege .... A stately, grey-haired lady, a white shawl draped about her shoulders, slowly rose to greet us. Anna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness."

Akhmatova's son Lev was arrested again at the end of 1949 and sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp. She spent much of the next years trying to secure his release; to this end, and for the first time, she published overtly propagandist poetry, “In Praise of Peace,” in the magazine Ogoniok, openly supporting Stalin and his regime. Lev remained in the camps until 1956, well after Stalin's death, his final release potentially aided by his mother's concerted efforts. Bayley suggests that her period of pro-Stalinist work may also have saved her own life; notably however, Akhmatova never acknowledged these pieces in her official corpus. Akhmatova's stature among Soviet poets was slowly conceded by party officials, her name no longer cited in only scathing contexts and she was readmitted to the Union of Writers in 1951, being fully recognised again following Stalin's death in 1953. With the press still heavily controlled and censored under Nikita Khrushchev, a translation by Akhmatova was praised in a public review in 1955, and her own poems began to re-appear in 1956. That same year Lev was released from the camps, embittered, believing that his mother cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard for his release. Akhmatova's status was confirmed by 1958, with the publication of Stikhotvoreniya (Poems) and then Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1960 (Poems: 1909–1960) in 1961. Beg vremeni (The flight of time), collected works 1909–1965, published 1965, was the most complete volume of her works in her lifetime, though the long damning poem Requiem, condemning the Stalinist purges, was conspicuously absent. Isaiah Berlin predicted at the time that it could never be published in the Soviet Union.

Last years

During the last years of Akhmatova's life, she continued to live with the Punin family in Leningrad, still translating, researching Pushkin, and writing her own poetry. Though still censored, she was concerned to re-construct work that had been destroyed or suppressed during the purges or which had posed a threat to the life of her son in the camps, such as the lost, semi-autobiographical play Enûma Elish. She worked on her official memoirs, planned novels, and worked on her epic Poem without a hero, 20 years in the writing.

Akhmatova was widely honoured in the USSR and the West. In 1962, she was visited by Robert Frost; Isaiah Berlin tried to visit her again, but she refused him, worried that her son might be re-arrested due to family association with the ideologically suspect western philosopher. She inspired and advised a large circle of key young Soviet writers. Her dacha in Komarovo was frequented by such poets as Yevgeny Rein and Joseph Brodsky, whom she mentored. Brodsky, arrested in 1963 and interned for social parasitism, would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987) and become Poet Laureate (1991) as an exile in the U.S.

As one of the last remaining major poets of the Silver Age, she was newly acclaimed by the Soviet authorities as a fine and loyal representative of their country and permitted to travel. At the same time, by virtue of works such as Requiem, Akhmatova was being hailed at home and abroad as an unofficial leader of the dissident movement, and reinforced this image herself. She was becoming a representative of both the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, more popular in the 1960s than she had ever been before the revolution, this reputation only continuing to grow after her death. For her 75th birthday in 1964, new collections of her verse were published.

Anna Ahmatova's grave
Anna Akhmatova's grave, Komarovo, Saint Petersburg

Akhmatova was able to meet some of her pre-revolutionary acquaintances in 1965, when she was allowed to travel to Sicily and England, in order to receive the Taormina prize and an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University, accompanied by her lifelong friend and secretary Lydia Chukovskaya. Akhmatova's Requiem in Russian finally appeared in book form in Munich in 1963, the whole work not published within USSR until 1987. Her long poem The Way of All the Earth or Woman of Kitezh (Kitezhanka) was published in complete form in 1965.

In November 1965, soon after her Oxford visit, Akhmatova suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised. She was moved to a sanatorium in Moscow in the spring of 1966 and died of heart failure on March 5, at the age of 76. Thousands attended the two memorial ceremonies, held in Moscow and in Leningrad. After being displayed in an open coffin, she was interred at Komarovo Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

In 1988, to celebrate what would have been Akhmatova's 100th birthday, Harvard University held an international conference on her life and work. Today her work may be explored at the Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg.

Work and themes

Poem by Akhmatova on a wall in Leiden

Akhmatova joined the Acmeist group of poets in 1910 with poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, working in response to the Symbolist school, concurrent with the growth of Imagism in Europe and America. It promoted the use of craft and rigorous poetic form over mysticism or spiritual in-roads to composition, favouring the concrete over the ephemeral. Akhmatova modeled its principles of writing with clarity, simplicity, and disciplined form. Her first collections Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914) received wide critical acclaim and made her famous from the start of her career. They contained brief, psychologically taut pieces, acclaimed for their classical diction, telling details, and the skilful use of colour. Evening and her next four books were mostly lyric miniatures on the theme of love, shot through with sadness.

Her early poems usually picture a man and a woman involved in the most poignant, ambiguous moment of their relationship, much imitated and later parodied by Nabokov and others. Critic Roberta Reeder notes that the early poems always attracted large numbers of admirers: "For Akhmatova was able to capture and convey the vast range of evolving emotions experienced in a love affair, from the first thrill of meeting, to a deepening love contending with hatred, and eventually to violent destructive passion or total indifference. But [...] her poetry marks a radical break with the erudite, ornate style and the mystical representation of love so typical of poets like Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely. Her lyrics are composed of short fragments of simple speech that do not form a logical coherent pattern. Instead, they reflect the way we actually think, the links between the images are emotional, and simple everyday objects are charged with psychological associations. Like Alexander Pushkin, who was her model in many ways, Akhmatova was intent on conveying worlds of meaning through precise details."

Akhmatova often complained that the critics "walled her in" to their perception of her work in the early years of romantic passion, despite major changes of theme in the later years of The Terror. This was mainly due to the secret nature of her work after the public and critical effusion over her first volumes. The risks during the purges were very great. Many of her close friends and family were exiled, imprisoned or shot; her son was under constant threat of arrest, she was often under close surveillance. Following artistic repression and public condemnation by the state in the 1920s, many within literary and public circles, at home and abroad, thought she had died. Her readership generally did not know her later opus, the railing passion of Requiem or Poem without a Hero and her other scathing works, which were shared only with a very trusted few or circulated in secret by word of mouth (samizdat).

Between 1935 and 1940 Akhmatova composed, worked and reworked the long poem Requiem in secret, a lyrical cycle of lamentation and witness, depicting the suffering of the common people under Soviet terror. She carried it with her as she worked and lived in towns and cities across the Soviet Union. It was conspicuously absent from her collected works, given its explicit condemnation of the purges. The work in Russian finally appeared in book form in Munich in 1963, the whole work not published within USSR until 1987. It consists of ten numbered poems that examine a series of emotional states, exploring suffering, despair, devotion, rather than a clear narrative. Biblical themes such as Christ's crucifixion and the devastation of Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, reflect the ravaging of Russia, particularly witnessing the harrowing of women in the 1930s. It represented, to some degree, a rejection of her own earlier romantic work as she took on the public role as chronicler of the Terror. This is a role she holds to this day.

Her essays on Pushkin and Poem Without a Hero, her longest work, were only published after her death. This long poem, composed between 1940 and 1965, is often critically regarded as her best work and also one of the finest poems of the twentieth century. It gives a deep and detailed analysis of her epoch and her approach to it, including her important encounter with Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) in 1945. Her talent in composition and translation is evidenced in her fine translations of the works of poets writing in French, English, Italian, Armenian, and Korean.

Cultural influence

  • American composer Ivana Marburger Themmen set Akhmatova's poetry to music.
  • Translations of some of her poems by Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin are set to music on the 2015 album The Trackless Woods by Iris DeMent.
  • Anna Akhmatova is the main character of the Australian play The Woman in the Window by Alma De Groen, premiered at Fairfax Studio, Melbourne, in 1998; Sydney: Currency Press, ISBN: 978-0-86819-593-3.
  • Dutch composer Marjo Tal set Akhmatova's poetry to music.
  • Ukrainian composer Inna Abramovna Zhvanetskaia set several of Akhmatova's poems to music.
  • Porcelain figurine: When Anna Akhmatova was at the peak of her popularity, to commemorate her 35th birthday (1924), a porcelain figurine resembling her in a grey dress with flower pattern covered in a red shawl was mass-produced. Throughout the following years, the figurine was reproduced multiple times on different occasions: once in 1954, on her 65th birthday, as she was fully recognised and praised again following Stalin's death, and again in 1965 as both a tribute to her being short-listed for the Nobel Prize in 1965 and for her 75th birthday a year earlier. This was the last time the porcelain figurine was produced during her lifetime. The figurine was so popular that it was reproduced after her passing, once for what would have been her 85th birthday in 1974, and again for her 100th birthday in 1988, making it one of the most popular and widely available porcelain figurines in the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, there was an immense surge in Akhmatova's popularity and her porcelain figurine was mass-produced yet again, this time in a plain grey dress with a yellow shawl. Her figure now stands in almost every post-Soviet home.


Selected poetry collections

Published by Akhmatova

  • 1912 - Vecher/Вечер (Evening)
  • 1914 – Chetki (Rosary or literally Beads)
  • 1917 – Belaya Staya (White Flock)
  • 1921 – Podorozhnik (Wayside Grass/Plantain). 60 pages, 1000 copies published.
  • 1921 – Anno Domini MCMXXI
  • Reed – two-volume collection of selected poems (1924–1926); compiled but never published.
  • Uneven – compiled but never published.
  • 1940 – From Six Books (publication suspended shortly after release, copies pulped and banned).
  • 1943 – Izbrannoe Stikhi (Selections of Poetry). Tashkent, government-edited.
  • Iva – not separately published
  • Sed'maya kniga (Seventh Book) – not separately published
  • 1958 – Stikhotvoreniya (Poems) (25,000 copies)
  • 1961 – Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1960 (Poems: 1909–1960)
  • 1965 – Beg vremeni (The Flight of Time: Collected Works 1909–1965)

Later editions

  • 1967 – Poems of Akhmatova. Ed. and trans. Stanley Kunitz, Boston
  • 1976 – Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems (trans. D. M. Thomas); Penguin Books
  • 1985 – Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova (trans. Jane Kenyon); Eighties Press and Ally Press; ISBN: 0-915408-30-9
  • 1988 – Selected Poems (trans. Richard McKane); Bloodaxe Books Ltd; ISBN: 1-85224-063-6
  • 2000 – The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (trans. Judith Hemschemeyer; ed. Roberta Reeder); Zephyr Press; ISBN: 0-939010-27-5
  • 2004 – The Word That Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memory (Annals of Communism) (trans. Nancy Anderson). Yale University Press. ISBN: 0-300-10377-8
  • 2006 – Selected Poems (trans. D. M. Thomas); Penguin Classics; ISBN: 0-14-042464-4
  • 2009 – Selected Poems (trans. Walter Arndt); Overlook TP; ISBN: 0-88233-180-9

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Anna Ajmátova para niños

  • Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum
  • Akhmatova's Orphans
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