Decolonization and Disentanglement in Ukrainian Art

In this text focused on how postcolonial and decolonial processes are reflected in contemporary Ukrainian culture, art historian Svitlana Biedarieva examines methods of decolonizing Ukrainian cultural discourse through the lens of works by contemporary Ukrainian artists—specifically those addressing complex aspects of identity conflicts actualized by Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. Each of the artworks analyzed here dismantles the notion of Ukraine’s postcolonial entanglements through discussions of memory, language, and trauma. Further, Biedarieva attempts to establish a new theoretical framework in which to understand Ukraine’s particular position on the world’s geopolitical map, taking into account the fading impact of Russian colonialism on Ukrainian territory.

Decolonial Liberation of Ukraine / Self-Colonization of Russia

Many of the works created by Ukrainian artists during the last eight years reflect on the postcolonial state and traumatic memories of Ukraine’s entanglement with Russia before and throughout the twentieth century.1The countdown of recent events began in 2013 with the Maidan revolution and continued in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the Russian occupation of the Donbas. However, since Russian bombs began falling on Ukrainian towns, killing Ukrainian civilians, including children, and destroying thousands of Ukrainian people’s homes, unfolding in a full-scale Russian invasion of the country in February 2022, understanding of this postcolonial entanglement has changed—as has the attitude toward decoloniality in Ukrainian culture.2Even though, conventionally, one might consider that in Ukrainian culture, the current changes in interpretation of the ongoing traumatic events are manifested through decolonial optics, in looking at the dichotomy of postcolonialism/decoloniality from a paradigmatic point of view as opposed to a chronological one, it becomes apparent that neither is a particularly fit theoretical framework in the case of Ukraine. While postcolonial theory predominantly addresses Western power in the discourse of modernity through the perspectives of former colonies, considering ongoing Western influence in these territories, the decolonial approach relies on the development of a parallel power structure, as an independent alternative to the once-dominant narratives, and mostly with a focus on Latin America. However, Ukraine, and other post-socialist countries do not fully respond to either approach, having been at some moment of history, as part of the socialist space, on the periphery of Western discourses on modernity. Literary scholar Vitaly Chernetsky proposes that “postcolonialism is rooted in the cultural and social realia of the Third World, and ‘postcommunism’ [or postsocialism] has been used, at least in the social sciences, as the specific characteristic of the Second World.” Vitaly Chernetsky, Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization (Montreal & Kingston, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 12. Madina Tlostanova at the same time has done a lot of work to apply postcolonial and decolonial approaches to the so-called Second World, but I argue that one still needs to find a specific approach to Ukraine, because the colonial situation before and during socialism differed significantly from the known examples that are usually at focus of both postcolonial and decolonial inquiry. Art is one of the indicators of such a profound liberation impulse.

To start off, I would like to argue that notions of the postcolonial and decolonial are not interchangeable in terms of the war and history between Ukraine and Russia; rather they reflect two different stages of liberation from entanglement. While the former denotes the situation immediately following the colonial experience and anti-colonial struggle, taking on all the implications of colonialism with the intention of reinterpreting them, the latter speaks about the final process of dismantling the colonial narrative. Decolonial researcher Madina Tlostanova remarks on the chronological and logical discrepancies between the two approaches: “The postcolonial condition is more of an objective given, a geopolitical and geohistorical situation of many people coming from former colonies. The decolonial stance is one step further, as it involves a conscious choice of how to interpret reality and how to act upon it.”3Madina Tlostanova, “The postcolonial condition, the decolonial option and the post-socialist intervention,” in Postcolonialism Cross-Examined: Multidirectional Perspectives on Imperial and Colonial Pasts and the New Colonial Present, ed. Monika Albrecht (London and New York: Routledge, 2020), 165, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1335477/FULLTEXT01.pdf. The atrocities of the anachronistic Russian war of aggression have brought Ukraine to the culmination of its decolonial stage, with the once-dominating narrative of Russian culture “enveloping” Ukrainian culture having fallen apart to the point of no return. Indeed, any further aggressive action on the part of Russia toward Ukraine will only continue to foster what is an inevitable shift.

We observe a very different process in Russia, where ongoing Ukrainian disentanglement provokes Russian obsession not only with Ukraine’s territory, but also with the minds and souls of the Ukrainian people. In this Russian pursuit of the unachievable, the war represents a notorious case of “self-colonization,” in which Russia has emotionally aligned itself with a culture and geographical space to which it has no right.4To define self-colonization, literary critic Alexander Kiossev speaks about “hegemony without domination,” that is, when a country voluntarily succumbs to the symbolic cultural power of another country, without having been in fact invaded and colonized. As recent events show, Ukraine has assumed a dominant role in Russia’s political imagination, with the propaganda machine repeatedly suggesting the existential threat that Ukraine poses to Russia—and Russia’s obsession with Ukraine. For a fuller definition of “self-colonization,” see Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonizing Metaphor,” Atlas of Transformation (Zürich: JRP/Ringier, 2010), http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/s/self-colonization/the-self-colonizing-metaphor-alexander-kiossev.html. Ukraine has become a Russian territory of desire, and Russia, in longing to occupy Ukraine, has in effect converted itself into Ukraine’s invisible colony. Currently, it is Russia that persists in simultaneous colonial and anti-colonial stages and has not yet reached the postcolonial condition—a state impossible to achieve without the removal of tyranny and the decentralization of power and institutions. This social and cultural divergence between the two countries is enormous, and though the outcomes for Ukraine are extremely painful, for Russia, they will be fatal unless internal resistance brings the country to a more advanced postcolonial stage. Ukrainian determination toward decoloniality is expressed in recent artworks that reflect on the metamorphosis fostered by the rapid transition from what can be interpreted as a postcolonial state to decoloniality in the last eight years. Further, some works deal with this postcolonial/decolonial dynamic through language.

Dissolving Postcolonial Ambiguity

The work #hero (2014–20) by Anton Lapov is a media installation that gathers data from the Internet to challenge the logic of a digital environment that, after 2014, permitted different political perspectives and, at the same time, gave way to pro-Russian propaganda. Lapov created a generative hypertextual system that constructs a nonselective database formed of portraits of people found under the hashtag “hero” at a particular localized network. These images are further blended into a single, shifting composite portrait, whose features morph as new digital images are added. Lapov intended to show how the overflow of propaganda distorted judgment regarding the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine in 2014 as well as led to initial confusion. He also aimed to question whether the “heroic” criteria were any more reliable in times of profound political confrontation and amid a heated information war. This work is an example of the postcolonial “ambivalence” that, as interpreted by critical theorist Homi Bhabha, occurs when the oppressor and the oppressed share similar features, and the dominant culture infects its colonial domain with its own cultural identity.5Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in “Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis,” special issue, October 28 (Spring 1984), 125–33, https://doi.org/10.2307/778467. As the situation following the 2022 full-scale invasion has shown, Russia’s strategy has relied on a similar type of ambivalence—that is, Russia’s hope that Ukrainian society forms a similar kind of nonselective hypertext, and that Russian propaganda leads to Ukrainian support of Russian aggression within Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian resistance against the invaders, however, confirms that mediatic reality is different from the real status of things. The Ukrainian people’s heartfelt struggle against the Russian war is testament to the fact that postcolonial ambivalence is not characteristic of Ukrainian society, marking not only the end of the debate around ambivalence, but also the birth of a decolonial culture.

Anton Lapov. #hero. 2014–20. Installation view, [De][Re]Construction, Wrocław, 2016. Photo: Roman Huk

Another work that reflects on varying points of view on violence is Blind Spot (2014) by Mykola Ridnyi. In this series of photographs of a building in eastern Ukraine heavily damaged by Russian shelling, a circular “blind spot,” in fact a black ink blot, obscures a significant part of every image. In some works, the extent of the destruction is covered in ink and thus no longer visible, permitting only the surrounding landscape to be seen, while in others, the rubble is visible though seemingly removed from its surrounding context. In a version of the project realized together with Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan on a large banner partially covering a building in Berlin, a small circular view of rubble from a destroyed building in Luhansk appears to float, untethered in a field of black. Ridnyi visually addresses the gradual loss of visibility of violence and voluntary societal blindness to traumatic war events. Zhadan, in his turn, uses words to address the theme of destruction, recalling the bombing of a museum in Donetsk and pointing out that the devastation of buildings and cultural heritage rarely stays in the public memory of those who did not inhabit the place in which it occurred. This work can also be read in a more general way, as a metaphor for the invisibility of evil as a postcolonial condition—or more specifically, for the fact that the peripheral territories in eastern Ukraine were not considered of ultimate importance when war broke out there in 2014. In 2022, however, it has become clear that the avoidance of the topic of the war in the east did not resolve the problem but rather made it deeper. Indeed, the crimes hiding behind blind spots are now in plain sight.

Mykola Ridnyi and Serhiy Zhadan. Blind Spot. 2014

Artist and writer Yevgenia Belorusets’s daily dispatches from wartime Kyiv, which she began posting amid the full-scale invasion in February 2022, present a human view of the horrors in which the city and its surroundings have been immersed since the beginning of the Russian attacks:

In the evening I learned that a friend of mine was evacuated from the small town of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv. On the way, she lost her dog, who was frightened by the explosions and ran off in a panic. She saw with her own eyes how women with children were being targeted as they tried to get on an evacuation bus. Then something heavy crashed to the ground not far from them, a bomb perhaps, and everyone on the bus was knocked over. My friend told me, “I want to survive so I can describe this evacuation in The Hague.” . . . Some were murdered during the evacuation. The estimate so far is six women and children, but the exact number of victims and injured is still being clarified.6Yevgenia Belorusets, Kyiv: The War Diary of Yevgenia Belorusets, https://isolarii.com/kyiv. 

This diary excerpt exemplifies observation and reporting in which there are no blind spots, no ambivalence of vision, as Ukraine and the world clearly see the Russian war crimes, including the killings of civilians. The paradigmatic space of the oppressor’s cultural identity has been entirely eliminated among the Ukrainian people, who have witnessed untold violence, destruction, and death unjustly brought upon them by Russia.

Releasing Language

The use of language in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine is discussed in War in Ukraine (2015), a work by Lada Nakonechna. The artist produced a series of typed texts in which she explores how language structures are conditioned by particular political positions and modes of thinking. Small details, such as the order of words or the use of prepositions, can change the meaning of a phrase. In every example, the artist uses three related phrasal structures, where the meaning has been profoundly transformed to reveal how linguistic clichés reflect underlying paradigms—such as “Civil  war on  in Ukraine,” “The armed conflict in the east of Ukraine,” and “Russian-Ukrainian war.” The ways in which these phrases are constructed make clear the points of view from which they are generated: how they distinguish between the subject and object of the aggression, and expose particular ideas either promoted by Russian propaganda or conventionally accepted by the Ukrainian mass media. These phrases are not related to the specific use of the Ukrainian or Russian language; rather the syntax and vocabulary form the intended meaning. Though made in 2015, the work remains relevant in 2022 beyond the Ukrainian media sphere, as Russian propaganda and the Western media alike often describe the war as a “conflict,” in effect belittling its importance and blurring the reality of the actual situation.

Lada Nakonechna. War in Ukraine. 2015

The linguistic discrepancy within Ukrainian bilingualism has been challenged by such early post-Soviet works as The Three-Letter Box (1994), an installation and performance by Fast Reaction Group. The artists Sergei Bratkov and Boris Mikhailov created a “Pandora’s box” containing the three letters ї, і, and є, which highlight the difference between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, and use it to make a political statement emphasizing linguistic divergence as a postcolonial process.7The letters ї, і, and є (and also ґ) exist in the Ukrainian alphabet but not in the Russian alphabet.  As was characteristic in the first two decades of Ukrainian independence, embracing such binary opposition was key to the self-identification process of the Ukrainian political nation at that time. The three Ukrainian letters, clear markers of belonging at a time when the nation-state structure was still unstable and social anxiety about post-socialist cultural resistance was high, were important to Ukrainian identity formation. The work was made in the period of transition, when post-Soviet transformations encouraged the use of Ukrainian language, the return to which was considered an important element of cultural identity—yet leaving existential space for the use of Russian in different Ukrainian regions.  

Fast Reaction Group (Sergei Bratkov and Boris Mikhailov). The Three-Letter Box. 1994

In his performance Force Me to Speak Ukrainian (2019), Taras Kamennoy referred to The Three-Letter Box as he explored how the imperative of the use of Ukrainian as the official language may or may not be incorporated into the public sphere of Russian-speaking Kharkiv. The project, in the artist’s words, was provoked by one of his Russian relatives, who wondered whether Kamennoy was being forced by the “nationalist” government to speak Ukrainian. To challenge this colonialist view, the artist presented a performance on the streets of Kharkiv, where he approached people, carrying a banner that asked them to “force” him to speak Ukrainian. He then documented the replies, which ranged from surprised to the affirmative—that is, that it would be good for him to switch to Ukrainian as the official state language; however, he failed to obtain the imperative that he sought. This work challenged Russia’s view of Ukraine as a controlling environment, similar to Russia’s authoritarian position. Kamennoy emphasized the freedom of choice and expression upon which Ukrainian solidarity heavily relies. This solidarity, together with pluralism, defined Ukrainian resilience in the protests of the Maidan revolution in 2013, and the subsequent war with Russia in the Donbas—making Ukraine very different from its neighboring country, which has proclaimed itself heir to a colonialist empire.

As these projects show, political conflict may reside in ways of speaking, rather than in the language spoken. And this understanding is an essential principle in the Ukrainian decolonization process. As Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak has written: “In a piece on the 2014 fighting around the Donetsk airport, Los Angeles Times correspondent Sergei Loiko noted that inside the airport, Ukrainian military forces used exclusively Russian as their operative language and Ukrainian was nowhere to be heard. What struck him the most was how pure, cultured, and almost literary their Russian was.”8Yaroslav Hrytsak, “The Postcolonial Is Not Enough,” Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 737, https://doi.org/10.5612/slavicreview.74.4.732.  Hrytsak concludes from this incident that the postcolonial condition in Ukraine—if this is indeed the right paradigm to describe the situation—could not be reduced to cultural dominance through language.

Curator Kateryna Botanova proposes that languages and identities have been weaponized and instrumentalized in Ukraine as part of the post-Soviet neo-capitalistic electoral struggle. The efforts of election-related public protests in 2004 and 2013 undermined Russian-led efforts to use language as a marker of identity in Ukraine, emphasizing instead the complexity of the past and the solidarity beyond linguistics as characteristic of a political Ukrainian nation. The ongoing collective struggle against Russia’s violent and dirty war in Ukraine only increases this sense of solidarity. In erasing the possibility of using language in the colonial discourse, language is turned into yet another tool of decolonization. Quoting one of the Ukrainian artists, Botanova proposes that “The Russian language will be our war trophy.”9Kateryna Botanova, “Sprache und Krieg: ‘Russisch ist eine Trophäe, die wir behalten’,” Der Tagesspiegel, March 18, 2022, https://plus.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/sprache-und-krieg-russisch-ist-eine-trophae-die-wir-behalten-426958.html.

Disentangling Memory

Turning to the traumatic past, Andrii Dostliev and Lia Dostlieva’s series of collages I still feel sorry when I throw away food—Grandma used to tell me stories about the Holodomor (2018) is a reflection on the 1932–33 famine provoked by the Stalinist repression of Ukrainian peasants. One of the most powerful traumatic moments in twentieth-century Ukrainian history is reinterpreted by the artists as subtle prints of spoiled food on paper. Today, the work painfully resonates with the current situation in Mariupol, where because of the blockade, food is scarce and people are dying not only from shelling but also from starvation.10Valerie Hopkins, Ben Hubbard, and Gina Kolata, “How Russia Is Using Ukrainians’ Hunger as a Weapon of War, New York Times, March 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/world/europe/mariupol-ukraine-russia-war-food-water.html. This is a new form of genocide unfolding in Ukraine, ninety years after the Stalinist famines, as Russia intends to replay its colonialist intentions in contemporary conditions. In Dostliev and Dostlieva’s work, images generated by food that has been thrown away are juxtaposed with images of anonymous landscapes that evoke permanence. Genocide by starvation does not impact the landscape—unlike genocide caused by Russian bombing in Mariupol. The death, caused by shelling, becomes embedded in it, leaving a permanent trace. As art researcher Kateryna Iakovlenko puts it when she poetically speaks of war destructions and the continuous explosions in the sky over Ukraine: “On February 24, the beauty of the sunrise was stolen from us.”11Kateryna Iakovlenko, “Landscape, Decolonial and Ukrainian Resistance,” BLOK, March 28, 2022, https://blokmagazine.com/landscape-decolonial-and-ukrainian-resistance/.

Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev. I still feel sorry when I throw away food—Grandma used to tell me stories about the Holodomor. 2018. 11 13/16 x 8 1/4 in. (30 x 21 cm)

In subtle dialogue with the theme of hunger, Zhanna Kadyrova’s new work Palianytsia (2022) reverses the vision of food as a source of life undertaken by Andrii Dostliev and Lia Dostlieva, and, in particular, of bread as a sign of hospitality, turning the latter into a means of resistance. “Palianytsia” describes a type of Ukrainian bread that has reportedly been used to reveal suspected Russian saboteurs, who are unable to pronounce the word correctly. Moreover, due to some differences in Ukrainian and Russian phonetics, it has proven difficult for monolingual Russian speakers to spell the word in its conventional form. In western Ukraine, where Kadyrova was in evacuation, she set a table, replacing the bread with sliced river stones—as unbitable and inedible as Ukrainian phonetics and Ukrainian territory are to the Russians. This project presents the ultimate decolonial gesture of inverting the theme of hunger, turning it against the enemy who came to kill, and thus, in breaking up with historical trauma, reinterpreting food as an instrument of resistance.

Zhanna Kadyrova. Palianytsia. 2022

Exiting the Decolonial Condition

Works such as those by Ridnyi and Zhadan, Nakonechna and Lapov—which use ambivalence or hybridity of the relative positions of the colonizer and colonized as their moving force—have shifted in their focus from internal to external since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 and Ukrainians fully broke with the Russian cultural sphere. All of the controversies and diversities of positions of which the artists speak have been at once and forever erased by Russia’s ongoing attack. The ambiguity is gone, as is Ukraine’s postcolonial struggle. For Ukraine, this inhumane war, however painful and unbelievably destructive, marks not only the country’s release from postcolonial entanglements, but also its definitive entrance into the decolonial stage. Both the post-socialist and postcolonial conditions gradually evaporated from the territory of Ukraine after 2014, and the selfless yet harsh resistance of the Ukrainian people against the Russian invaders has shown that any other entanglements have also disappeared.

In Ukraine’s particular decolonial case, Russia is no longer present as a political or cultural agent of impact. Among Ukrainians, there is more than a general lack of interest in Russia and its territory; indeed, there is a conscious collective position of distancing to avoid entanglement. We are yet to invent a new framework for interpreting and describing the decolonial state in which we find ourselves, for it goes beyond any existing postcolonial or decolonial paradigm. In Russia’s own simultaneous colonial and anticolonial case, the self-colonization through desire and affection toward Ukraine keeps it in an anachronic time-lapse state, stunts its progress, and is leading to its decay and eventual ruin. Meanwhile, the decolonial process of release in Ukraine carries on at an unprecedented pace—despite the flames of war and loss of heritage.  


  • 1
    The countdown of recent events began in 2013 with the Maidan revolution and continued in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the Russian occupation of the Donbas.
  • 2
    Even though, conventionally, one might consider that in Ukrainian culture, the current changes in interpretation of the ongoing traumatic events are manifested through decolonial optics, in looking at the dichotomy of postcolonialism/decoloniality from a paradigmatic point of view as opposed to a chronological one, it becomes apparent that neither is a particularly fit theoretical framework in the case of Ukraine. While postcolonial theory predominantly addresses Western power in the discourse of modernity through the perspectives of former colonies, considering ongoing Western influence in these territories, the decolonial approach relies on the development of a parallel power structure, as an independent alternative to the once-dominant narratives, and mostly with a focus on Latin America. However, Ukraine, and other post-socialist countries do not fully respond to either approach, having been at some moment of history, as part of the socialist space, on the periphery of Western discourses on modernity. Literary scholar Vitaly Chernetsky proposes that “postcolonialism is rooted in the cultural and social realia of the Third World, and ‘postcommunism’ [or postsocialism] has been used, at least in the social sciences, as the specific characteristic of the Second World.” Vitaly Chernetsky, Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization (Montreal & Kingston, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 12. Madina Tlostanova at the same time has done a lot of work to apply postcolonial and decolonial approaches to the so-called Second World, but I argue that one still needs to find a specific approach to Ukraine, because the colonial situation before and during socialism differed significantly from the known examples that are usually at focus of both postcolonial and decolonial inquiry.
  • 3
    Madina Tlostanova, “The postcolonial condition, the decolonial option and the post-socialist intervention,” in Postcolonialism Cross-Examined: Multidirectional Perspectives on Imperial and Colonial Pasts and the New Colonial Present, ed. Monika Albrecht (London and New York: Routledge, 2020), 165, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1335477/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
  • 4
    To define self-colonization, literary critic Alexander Kiossev speaks about “hegemony without domination,” that is, when a country voluntarily succumbs to the symbolic cultural power of another country, without having been in fact invaded and colonized. As recent events show, Ukraine has assumed a dominant role in Russia’s political imagination, with the propaganda machine repeatedly suggesting the existential threat that Ukraine poses to Russia—and Russia’s obsession with Ukraine. For a fuller definition of “self-colonization,” see Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonizing Metaphor,” Atlas of Transformation (Zürich: JRP/Ringier, 2010), http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/s/self-colonization/the-self-colonizing-metaphor-alexander-kiossev.html.
  • 5
    Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in “Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis,” special issue, October 28 (Spring 1984), 125–33, https://doi.org/10.2307/778467.
  • 6
    Yevgenia Belorusets, Kyiv: The War Diary of Yevgenia Belorusets, https://isolarii.com/kyiv. 
  • 7
    The letters ї, і, and є (and also ґ) exist in the Ukrainian alphabet but not in the Russian alphabet.
  • 8
    Yaroslav Hrytsak, “The Postcolonial Is Not Enough,” Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 737, https://doi.org/10.5612/slavicreview.74.4.732.
  • 9
    Kateryna Botanova, “Sprache und Krieg: ‘Russisch ist eine Trophäe, die wir behalten’,” Der Tagesspiegel, March 18, 2022, https://plus.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/sprache-und-krieg-russisch-ist-eine-trophae-die-wir-behalten-426958.html.
  • 10
    Valerie Hopkins, Ben Hubbard, and Gina Kolata, “How Russia Is Using Ukrainians’ Hunger as a Weapon of War, New York Times, March 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/world/europe/mariupol-ukraine-russia-war-food-water.html.
  • 11
    Kateryna Iakovlenko, “Landscape, Decolonial and Ukrainian Resistance,” BLOK, March 28, 2022, https://blokmagazine.com/landscape-decolonial-and-ukrainian-resistance/.

More in this theme

Screening Program: Notes from the Ground

The program showcases moving image works by contemporary artists from Ukraine. Created between the Maidan revolution, which was followed by Crimean annexation and occupation of Donbas in 2014—and the full-scale Russian invasion launched on February 24 of this year—the works in the program take the viewer through the country’s urgencies and contradictions, the streets and fringes of its cities, and the experiences of its inhabitants.

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