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International Socialist Review, Spring 1958


M. Bernz

The Politics of Soviet Music


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.2, Spring 1958, pp.56-60.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What is the connection between Stalinist power politics and the musical productions applauded in the capitalist world? The fate of the composers suggests an answer

M. Bernz is a music critic. His contribution was offered in response to our invitation to discuss questions concerning art and socialism.

* * *

IN THE development of Soviet art music, two distinct currents are visible: one, modernistic; the other, conservative and traditionalistic. The first has sought to keep Soviet music abreast of the world main stream. It stems from the internal preferences and necessities of the composers themselves; it also, evidently, has supporters among cultured circles in the Soviet population. The other, the traditionalist current, is slanted to the tastes of urban mass audiences within the Soviet Union, and has been much touted among Stalinist and Stalinist-influenced circles abroad. During the latter depression years and during the war it was held to be the greatest music of its time; but, with the cold war, this conviction has quietly subsided. Interest in it, however, may still be revived – the international political climate will largely determine this.

The modernistic or advanced current, the bureaucracy prefers to regard as bourgeois, or “formalistic.” It is “advanced,” to the bureaucracy, only in its putrefaction. The traditionalist current, consequently, comes to be regarded as “proletarian,” as “people’s” music. Beneath this theoretical vulgaiization a certain real class difference is nonetheless evident; for, as we shall see, each current tends to wax or wane in conjunction with periods of collaboration or intensified hostility in relation to the encircling bourgeois world. Further, the fluctuations seem to reflect variations in the strength of the bourgeois and proletarian tendencies in the Soviet Union itself.

In its actual substance, the so-called “bourgeois” music simply shares the characteristics of that produced among the more advanced composers in the bourgeois world; while the “proletarian” music is mainly drawn from the musical stuff and sentiment of a bourgeois world that is dead and past. It is noteworthy that this latter music, reflecting the Soviet mass taste and the bureaucracy’s deformation of it, is precisely that music which most bureaucracy-haters prefer, and which they mistakenly assume has somehow escaped the bureaucratic stultification.

The primary purpose of the bureaucracy, of course, is to employ art music prestige-wise, to glorify and advertise the regime and its policies. This they can best effect if it remains tuneful, easily grasped, colorful, and safely traditionalistic. Within certain bounds, this results in the stirring popular compositions so beloved by Stalinists and simple music-lovers. Beyond this, it results in the hyper-conservative and scared works that followed the music purge of 1948. These went so far in the direction of bureaucratic glorification and musical inanity that only the security police were left to appreciate them.

The course, consequently, has been backward; that is, leaving aside secondary ups and downs, Soviet art music has grown tamer and more old-fashioned with the years. At no time has it represented the world vanguard; rather has it smoothed the path for conservatism and reaction. And for this, not simply the bureaucracy, but the inescapable mass level of the product and consumer it brought together has been responsible.

The cultural guidance provided by the bureaucracy is theoretically rationalized, one way or another, upon a serviceable and handy esthetic; namely, that nice-sounding music liked by thousands and millions of persons is better than tonal sophistications such as are liked – if that – by handfuls of cognoscenti.

This is plain and straightforward; it is also susceptible to subtilizations suitable for those who do not care to take it straight. At any rate here, too, there is an element of validity: all great music came to be regarded so by affecting thousands and millions of persons. This it did, however, by percolating through these thousands and millions over some several generations. The bureaucracy, undeterred by this, prefers to lump the process and these multitudes into one generation; and, in principle, with modern means of cultural distribution, the broader propriety of this is not excluded.

Bureaucratism, we can all agree, tends to progressively stifle individuality. This, however, does not mean that there can be no competitive individualism for the mass favor. It simply cannot be addressed to and tested by the market place as it can under capitalism. Instead it has to be addressed to the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy, as a substitute for the market, tends to be more subject to the mass taste than to its own caprices. In music it does not pay to frustrate or ignore this mass taste; rather, it is expedient to graft the bureaucratic need upon it. It is here, on the cultural, even more than the basic levels of Soviet production, that bureaucratism becomes a brake compelling the quality of the product to spiral downward.

However, to counterpose to all this the artistic freedom and individuality that is based on the capitalist market place, is an easy and a dangerous error. The way out is not backward, but forward, to socialistic freedom and individuality.

In the garbled conception of art and music as the bureaucracy is forced to expound it, a sprig of validity is nevertheless to be noted. If a socialist art is the product of decades, there is a “Soviet” art, a product of the moment, which serves to promote and protect the social order it grew out of. American popular songs stimulate such fantasies as tend to perpetuate the American capitalist order; and Shostakovich symphonies, in like manner, generate such fantasies as help to perpetuate the bureaucratized proletarian order. It does so with materials held in common with bourgeois society, past and present, even as do Soviet guns and aircraft.

* * *

The bureaucracy, inheriting so much from Czarism, might, it would seem, have inherited the early Stravinsky to give the future Soviet music the most auspicious of send offs. This, however, proved politically unfeasible; also, it was musically Utopian; for Stravinsky, no friend of the regime even prior to Stalinism, would not only have occasioned an ideological muddle propagandistically, but worse – neither masses nor bureaucracy were prepared to like his music.

Likewise unacceptable, because he was an enemy of the regime, was Rachmaninov. Eventually, years later, after Rachmaninov was dead and could not disown the function, he was set up as a model for Soviet composers by the bureaucracy’s department of musical criticism. Rachmaninov’s old-fashioned and innocuous music, despite his politics, finally won him acceptance. Stravinsky, with the same politics but with his best music too harsh and too real for bureaucratic tastes, has remained singly – if not doubly – damned to this day.

Under the Bolsheviks, let us not forget, with the criterion of “for or against the revolution,” art and politics were not separated. Lunacharsky’s reputed concern for some architectural gems during the insurrectionary fighting, or even his sympathetic tolerance of ultra-modernist pictorial gems later on, was supposed to have earned little kindly comment from Lenin. In music the great works with religious connotation, the masses, the oratorios – these were simply banned. On another front, the musical idioms associated with Schonberg and Hindemith were deliberately not represented; for these were “bourgeois” in the sense that they were ideological advance elements of the encircling and hostile burgeois world.

During the subsequent period of the New Economic Policy all this changed. Schönberg, Berg, Krenek, Hindemith – all these began to be performed in the Soviet Union. With the restoration of market conditions and the renewal of foreign trade, the art products of the surrounding capitalist world also made their entry. And, just as this intercourse signalized the birth of bourgeois elements in Soviet society itself, so too did it signalize the birth of Soviet music as such: Shostakovich, in 1926, came out with his First Symphony.

This work, possibly, can be regarded as the first of consequence in that genre which can properly be called “Soviet.” It was sufficiently distinguishable from that being composed elsewhere; and it was also different from that of the pre-Soviet Russian musical world. Its closest affinity was with music already written by Prokofiev, then an expatriate Russian; and, through Prokofiev, it maintained a certain tenuous bond with Stravinsky.

From the standpoint of musical modernism, all this augured moderately well. But the whole Soviet scene, from the standpoint of capitalism, also augured well. The kulak, the nepman, the Soviets themselves in places, and the theorizing of the Bukharin-Rykov-Tomsky group, left only a little more time to be desired. Upon all these, of course, descended the centrist fist of the Stalin faction; and with the kulak and the nepman went the proponents of polytonalism and atonalism. Poor Shostakovich, rising from the promise of his First Symphony to a Second and a Third, awoke to find himself developing in the wrong direction.

(The Second, I have never heard. The Third Symphony, performed in this country in the early thirties by Stokowsky, is quite impressive. Because of its harshly dissonant harmonic substance, and its title, the May Day Symphony, it has found little hospitality in or out of the Soviet Union, however.)

On its musical front, in order to reverse the NEP tendencies, the regime threw its musical guards: proletarian youths flocked into the conservatories; simple-sounding marches, dances, and “working class” songs began to pour out. This was the period of the First Five Year Plan; and work, production, austere living – these were to be the glories of Soviet life. Music and the rest of the arts had to promote the sentiments appropriate to them.

(Some of the “steel”-like and “industry” music of this industrialization period presented in this country again by Stokowsky – was also quite impressive and promising. Moreover, it was even experimental. Orchestras without strings, with hugely augmented brass sections, and various other unorthodox features – on an orchestral and not on the chamber ensemble scale already commonplace elsewhere – these became the order of the day. Here, too, I have never heard any of these works since.)

From the First to the Second Five Year Plan, a change of esthetic evidently became feasible. The esthetic of the First operated in direct relation to the back muscles and stomach cavities of the population. It told them how strong they were, how little of food and other inessentials were necessary to their heroic spirits. The Second Five Year Plan esthetic, however, bore a certain impressionistic element. It sought to entertain the masses into believing how prosperous they were, now that they had attained “socialism.”

From coxswains and cheerleaders, the creative artists had to become proud advertisers of the fruits of the recent and continuing labors. For this, Gorky in 1934 gave a new exposition of the guiding principle of “socialist realism,” making the fantasies of the bureaucracy’s “socialism” the norm. In short, the bread-and-circuses formula was now to become the categorical imperative of art; and the people, it was hoped, would thus be made happy in their own eyes, and tractable in those of the bureaucracy.

Shostakovich, our most representative example of a Soviet composer, obliged with a truly edifying work. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk, brought out in 1934, depicts a tale of abundant intrigue, eroticism, and murder; and its music, in all these respects, remains faithfully realistic. The evening it provides, evidenced by its Soviet and world-wide success, is unquestionably entertaining. Its success, however, lasted only until 1936. For those two years it seemed to fit the temporary relaxed mood; it was permissible, it seemed, for people to be thus edified on both sides of the Soviet border.

Then, in 1936, on the eve of the great purges, the Soviet critics suddenly discovered that this realistic drama was too barbaric to be contained within the bounds of “socialist realism;” the score was declared “fidgeting, screaming, neurasthenic music.” Down came the curtain on Lady Macbeth; the curtain of a millionfold more murderous drama was about to go up. And Stalin and his henchmen, scared yellow over what was happening inside and outside the Soviet Union, feeling the baleful glare of Hitlerite Germany and their growing isolation within the whole capitalist encirclement, decided that the Fatherland needed something different and safer in art and music.

In 1932 Prokofiev had returned from abroad to become a Soviet citizen. His most popular works soon followed: the G Minor Violin Concerto, the Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky music, and Peter and the Wolf. Still freshly Sovietized, Prokofiev the ex-cosmopolite probably had no difficulty justifying these conservative pieces to himself. After all, Kije and Nevsky were only movie scores, and Peter and the Wolf was for children. Now, unless he wished to compose music for the feeble-minded, it was about time for him to get back to the musical highroad of the twentieth century.

This was never to be. The Soviet musical highroad led backward – and ever backward. The blast at Shostakovich over Lady Macbeth was but part of an unfolding pattern of guideposts; and, in due time, Prokofiev, with his own “bourgeois formalism,” became an even more enduring affliction to this same critical opinion. What better road he might have found outside the Soviet Union is wholly impossible to say; for Stravinsky himself was by now bogged ear-deep in his post-Sacré curiosities; others were plumbing the charms of atonalism with divining rod in one hand and slide rule in the other; and still others were also taking the road back. Wherever Prokofiev might have fitted in all this, he at least would have belonged; in the Soviet musical scene, he did not. Shostakovich, more accustomed to these surroundings than Prokofiev, eventually showed the way: his Fifth Symphony. This stirring and tuneful oddity, admittedly concocted in strict accordance with the bureaucratic prescription, set first the Sovet critics by their enthusiastic ears, and then the whole wide world of Stalinists, semi-

Stalinists, and simple music-lovers. In the then deepening world reaction, of course, the whole rabble of Stalinist and semi-Stalinist liberals could see salvation only by fortifying Western capitalism with tanks, artillery and aircraft, and by supporting the purges and frame-ups of Stalinism, blessed as they all were by the “most democratic constitution on earth.”

The bounding hearts, the tramping feet, the clanking tank treads – these were what Shostakovich, in his Fifth Symphony, had set to music. And in it he had forged a Popular Front surpassing that envisaged by Stalin himself. With Shostakovich, not only several classes, but several generations – living and dead – were amalgamated. What bourgeois composer could do as much for imperialism?

Another luminary of this Golden Age in Soviet music was Khachatourian. He specialized in what is professionally – and properly – known as hootchy-kootchy music; that is, music which, through use of a simple scale formula, is automatically rendered “oriental,” or “Caucasian,” or a number of other things or places. Something little better than this, the Soviet critics soberly cognized as that folk element without which any music is doomed to be weak and flaccid. The other Soviet composers, plumbing the Russian soul as Khachatourian plumbed the Caucasian, rolled forth the bassoons, and did likewise.

To repeat – the music of this period, commonly regarded as the best of its time by Stalinists, Stalinophobes, and ordinary innocents, could never have been created except by bureaucratic prescription; for it violated, without the slightest doubt, all the inner preferences and scruples of the composers who committed it to paper.

Such was the courting and subsequent honeymoon music of the bureaucratic bid for a pact with Anglo-American imperialism. With the end of the shooting war and the beginning of the cold war, a new turn had to be made. The blasted mementoes of the collaboration period had to go. The composers who had scored with their worldwide hits had to be shunted away from the bourgeois world which had applauded them so vigorously. More important, the war-made speculators and profiteers, the agrarian millionaires had to be put in their places. Most vital of all, the expanding bureaucracy, the technicians and managerial staffs of industry, growing with the reconstruction programs and the technological advances of Soviet industry, had to be put in or had to find their proper proper places.

Before an out-and-out purge could be attempted, a probing action and a demonstration evidently had to be made. The music purge of 1948, striking at the composers and through them at their collateral and higher-up connections, was launched. On February 10 the Central Committee issued its decree. Although, as a piece of musical criticism, it was couched in the purest pseudo-technical gibberish, only a fool would be diverted into a musical decipherment of it; for whatever is real is rational, and what was here rational, was mainly political.

In so far as the general charge of “bourgeois formalism” against the composers had any meaning, it simply signified that the composers were not spending enough time writing works using solo or choral voices to sing texts advertising the virtues and glories of the regime. Furthermore, unless all this was set to nice comprehensible tunes, the solos, the choruses, the texts, the virtues and the glories would all be wasted on inattentive ears. Like any advertiser in the market for a singing commercial, bureaucratism was paying its money and knew what it wanted.

Zhdanov, Stalin’s close henchman, a cop-politician of the best Politbureau timber, and no serious mouthpiece for any artistic opinion, was the spokesman for the decree. Who, consequently, was here speaking to whom? In a case like this, it was evidently the social layers in which the composers moved that had to pay heed. Presumably, as we shall soon see, the composers paid only half a heed; and their friends paid none at all.

Shostakovich, for instance, while carefully writing concert hall works in the officially approved style, at the same time continued to write chamber works full of the officially condemned “bourgeois formalism.” (His Tenth Symphony, appearing in 1955, long after the purge, is tame and compliant; but string and piano works, written in 1949 and 1951 soon after the purge, are full of the “cacaphony” and “dissonance” of non-compliance.)

Chamber works, we must note, are not for concert halls, are not for the popular masses; they are for some kind of cognoscenti; and in the Soviet Union these elements could only be found among the bureaucratic layers, particularly of the younger, more educated generation. Furthermore, these elements would represent those with the decisive skills in production, the ones who could best afford to devote their surplus time and resources to something other than bureaucratic politics. When Zhdanov and his co-thinkers therefore tagged as “bourgeois” the music supported by these layers in common with corresponding types in the bourgeois world, while the evidence is one of circumstantial association only, it is not without social foundation. Something similar happened, we must remember, in the earliest period of the Soviet state; and it happened in the swing from the NEP to the First Five Year Plan.

If Shostakovich and the social fabric he was part of survived Zhdanov’s attack, Zhdanov himself did not. He died under obscure circumstances; and much of his bureaucratic entourage, according to some, perished in the purge that unfolded in the buffer countries and in the Soviet Union. Whether this had anything to do with the clash of forces represented by the music purge, we do not yet know.

The actual event supposed to have triggered the music purge was the production of an opera The Great Friendship by a Georgian composer named Muradeli. (Some of his music, performed here by the Philharmonic under the inescapable Stokowsky, is of the same general idiom as Khachatourian’s. It is competent and colorful; also, it is not overly consequential.) The subject of its libretto, the “great friendship” between Lenin and Stalin, did not seem to be the target of the attack. It was its music which was diagnosed as “formalistic,” “tuneless,” and so on. Hence, unless the attack was aimed at separatist tendencies then becoming manifest in the Georgian Republic (against the central bureaucracy, or against the Great Russianism, or whatever else) its significance remains unclear. One thing, however, is reasonably certain: Muradeli’s music, judging from the above-cited example, is scarcely such as would excite much condemnation, much approbation, or much of anything else.

* * *

Stalin’s demise was followed, in musical circles, by a few notable events. For one thing, Prokofiev, the best and the most cosmopolitan of the Soviet composers, and hence, to the bureaucracy, the most bourgeois, and the most vilified since the 1948 decree, quietly and inconspicuously died. Of the top layer of Soviet composers, he was the most independent, the one furthest from servility. He was notorious for his caustic tongue, and for his success in finding targets for it. He was contemptuous of the politicians; and, during the meeting when the composers were lectured by Zhdanov, he was supposed to have sat through the session with his back to the great man.

After his return to the Soviet Union and the passing of this popularity, he seems to have sunk into some disillusionment. Taking full note of whatever might here be personally praiseworthy, we must not forget the following: he was indeed the most bourgeois culturally among his colleagues; consequently, his rebellion against bureaucratism was not from any socialist grounds, but from those of ordinary bourgeois individualism. Most of the Soviet composers, it must be remembered, were inherited from the Czarist period. This includes such as Miaskovsky, and, only to a lesser degree because he was younger, a Shostakovich. Prokofiev was more individualistic than any of these, not so much because of his similar Czarist years as because of his lengthy residence in such cosmopolitan centers as Paris, Chicago, and the Bronx.

This should remind us that, for the bureaucratized Soviet Union, competent composers could only be of such origin as would bring an added social deformation of the regime. As a spontaneous counterweight to these, with their entourages of admirers, their clique alliances with critics, editors, performers, opera and concert hall managers, there arose a group of musicians and composers whose successes were scored in party instead of musical circles.

In the 1948 purge, for instance, Khachatourian lost his post as general secretary of the composers union to one Khrennikov, a party stalwart and composer of no known consequence.

Thus the Soviet rejoinder to the cold war undertaken by American imperialism struck the real artists, the ones with know-how. In conclusion, just as the bureaucracy reclaimed Rachmaninov as its own – for his sweet tunes and his Russian heart, so too may the world bourgeoisie reclaim Prokofiev – for his clever tunes and his individualistic spirit.

Shortly after Stalin’s death Khachatourian stated in the magazine Soviet Music that “a creative problem cannot be solved by bureaucratic means.” A couple of months later, Shostakovich gave the same message in the same magazine. Here again: who is speaking to whom? If Malenkov was already beginning to dismantle old-line Stalinism, were these two set the task of further dismantling Zhdanovism? An operatic performance June 27, 1953 seemed to offer the answer.

The opera was The Decembrists by Georgi Shaporin; the libretto was by the veteran literary toady, Alexei Tolstoy. This opera, begun in 1925, revised in 1937, revised again in 1947, was thus finally premiered in 1953; that is, its career in and out of limbo coincided almost inversely with that of J. Stalin himself. Its premiere, however, made up for the delay. The story, which is about an army officer group’s attempted overthrow of Nicholas I, who was notorious for his corps of secret police, brought out Premier Malenkov in his first public appearance since Stalin’s death. Equally noteworthy was the fact that among the dignitaries accompanying Malenkov, Beria, chief of the late Stalin’s corps of secret police, was conspicuously absent. His absence, it proved, was permanent.

Prior to the 1948 purge, the Soviet composers had already perfected a style quite free of “bourgeois formalism.” It flourished in a couple of varieties. There was the out-and-out propaganda-poster work, with suitable text lauding The Leader, or some crash program in swamp drainage, or something; and there was the monster orchestral work – bigger longer, louder than anything any bourgeois composer could afford. Shostakovich’s celebrated wartime symphonies, drawn out of the safest portions of his Fifth, well padded with adagio writing and wood-wind interval effects, are fair examples; and, to disarm any accusation of gold-bricking, such a work could be polished off with a snappy race-track finale.

When the purge came in 1948, therefore, there was little of anything alive to meet it. Shostakovich could shortly fulfill its dictates with his Song of the Forest, a truly vegetable-like work designed to propagandize a reforestation program. Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, completed in 1952, tops even this with an aimlessness which defies criticism from any quarter. Kabalevsky’s Fourth Symphony, featured in the 1957 Philharmonic season, is, however, incautiously definite enough in places to provide a few grounds for complaint.

The death of Stalin, the fall of Beria, and the revelations of the Twentieth Congress all had their liberating effect upon the Soviet musical world. The 1948 decree had proscribed a long list of works, allegedly rife with “atonalism,” “cacaphony,” and the like. After 1953 the composers could not only sport a few modernisms in their esoteric output; they could, through their cronies in musical journalism, seek to extend these practices into their official output.

But their newly won freedom, if it prospered with these events, was soon to decline with the removal of Malenkov (and Molotov and others) from the Soviet Presidium in 1957. With this occurrence, the elements supporting the new freedom must have suffered a setback. The current policy presages a tighter party-police hold upon the arts.

Shortly before Zhukov’s removal, the Oct. 14 New York Times reported that the editors of Soviet Music had been fired some time previously. (This is the publication in which the Khachatourian-Shostakovich attack on bureaucratism was made shortly after Stalin’s death.) What had they been fired for?

The views they had been expressing, in varying degree since 1953, were reported thus: they defended “atonal music;” they ridiculed proponents of “melodious music;” they regarded the recent period in Soviet music as one of “murky stagnation;” they supported the theory that “great art works were not immediately understood by the masses of the people.”

In short, instead of speaking for a unified and disciplined bureaucracy through the party, these editors and critics had been able to speak directly for those elements they themselves belonged to.

* * *

Perhaps it would be prudent to conclude with some observations which complicate rather than contradict the picture thus far developed. The Russian-American composer Nicholas Nabokov, who has had some contacts with the Soviet musical world, informs us that our notion concerning the popularity of certain Soviet composers is somewhat exaggerated. Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he holds, are not so much “liked” in the Soviet Union as “admired.”

On strictly musical grounds, this sounds unclear; records of concert attendances, and similar data, seem to contradict it. However, this observation could still be accurate so far as the main mass of the Soviet population is concerned. It could “admire” these figures without either “liking” or being particularly interested in them. They could be admired as world figures; and as world figures – figures of cultural consequence in the lands of capitalism, they represent a particular kind of political property appreciated by the bureaucracy.

A few further points on Prokofiev are here instructive. Throughout the late twenties and early thirties, before and after he became a Soviet citizen, he moved freely in and out of the Soviet Union, pursuing his composer-pianist career with as real a material base in capitalism as in the bureaucracy. And during this period, he was the most celebrated and pampered of any of the Soviet composers.

Toward the late thirties, however, Shostakovich, a simon-pure representative of the caste, definitively emerged as the leading Soviet composer. Prokofiev began to recede into a kind of emeritus status. This continued until the music purge of 1948. And here, suddenly, on the list of those who had sunk deepest into “bourgeois formalism,” the name of Prokofiev led all the rest.

There is some conflict in testimony on Prokofiev’s reaction at the time: according to one source, as already stated, he treated Zhdanov’s musical criticism with contempt; according to another, he was already a bureau-cratically battered figure, too sick to even attend the Zhdanov meeting. In either case, he defied the Zhdanov decree to the extent of recanting more tardily and more conditionally than the others. As a consequence, his whole past of bourgeois associations was now flung at him unremittingly; deeper and deeper layers of “bourgeois putrefaction” were laid bare in his music.

Prokofiev, by degrees, tried to conform, to capitulate. Each new composition outdid its predecessor in banality and conservatism. No longer a man of two worlds, he tried belatedly to integrate himself into the bureaucratic pile he had formerly adorned. He is supposed to have left his wife and children at about this time. Then he married the niece of no less a personage than Kaganovich; and, in collaboration with her, attempted a comeback with a new opera. In the fruits of this labor, however, the critics, after a couple of suspense-filled rehearsals, only discovered a new mare’s nest of Prokofievian putrefaction.

In all this, during the years following the music purge of 1948, there was more than a rude twitch of the Kaganovich mustache; Stalinism itself, menaced by even more unruly forces, seemed in desperate need of diverting attention from itself and of preventing the formation of independent-minded groups even in music circles.

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