Russia's expat journalists
This February, as warning signs of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were flashing, I flew to Moscow to provide analysis for CNN. I was the network’s Moscow bureau chief for almost a decade, and they frequently reach out during major breaking news.
My live-shot schedule was long and intense but, when I was finished for the day—or, more often, the night—I tried to meet with Russian friends and former colleagues, both to see how they were doing and to get their opinion on what Vladimir Putin was planning.
I was set to have coffee with one friend, Mikhail (Misha) Fishman, a well-known independent TV journalist. But on February 22, Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine on what the Kremlin dubbed a “peacekeeping mission.” Two days later, Putin officially announced his “special military operation.”
I got a cryptic text from Misha: “My family and I are going on vacation to Baku.” My old Soviet-era instincts kicked in. Going on vacation was the last thing Misha would do as a war was breaking out. But I knew it was best not to ask any questions—just stop texting and wait. I soon learned that my friend and his family had fled to Baku, Azerbaijan, as the Russian parliament passed a law forbidding use of words like “war” or “invasion” to describe Putin’s war, with a penalty of 15 years in prison. The government blocked the website of Misha’s channel, Dozhd TV (TV Rain). Within a few days, they shut themselves down and several journalists fled the country fearing for their safety.
I had to leave Russia early in March because of that law, which made it impossible to do any realistic reporting on the invasion. My Lufthansa flight back to the U.S. was cancelled when Western sanctions kicked in, but as an American, I was not afraid for my safety as several of my Russians friends were. In a Moscow café, one of them described to me her “Plan A, Plan B, Plan C” for getting out. She eventually got a plane ticket to Yerevan, Armenia, and is now in Poland. Others fled to Tbilisi, Georgia, or to the Baltic countries.
In mid-May I headed to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to find some of those journalists, most of whom I knew from Moscow.
A Studio in Vilnius
A day after I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, I got a text in Russian: “Jill, hi, we heard you’re in Vilnius. Would you like to join us for our morning show?” The text was from Tatyana (Tanya) Felgenhauer and Alexandr (Sasha) Plushchev, both of whom were anchors on Echo Moscow Radio, an influential channel that had abruptly vanished. Echo Moscow chronicled the earliest days of post-Soviet Russia and, during the Putin years, it hung on despite increasing Kremlin pressure to toe the line. Now it was gone, shut down by its Board of Directors after Russia’s censorship watchdog, Roskomnadzor, blocked its website for allegedly disseminating “deliberately false information” about the Russian military and for supporting “extremist activity” and “violence.”
I was a frequent guest on Echo during my time as bureau chief and had joined Tanya and Sasha via Zoom several times over the past few years from Washington, D.C. Now in Vilnius, I agreed to join them on their YouTube Channel. In Russia, YouTube has become a kind of alternate television; many young Russians no longer watch state TV, which is filled with propaganda and increasingly irrelevant.
Their studio was a large room in a commercial building where friends were allowing them to work. Complete with LED studio lights, a “green screen” behind them, and a square black “anchor desk” in the middle, Tanya and Sasha sat, each with a laptop and microphone, facing two TV cameras. They were in a live conversation with viewers about the war and waved me over to a third seated microphone. We talked on air for a half hour or so. Sasha happily reported later that 25,000 people had watched our YouTube discussion.
When the show was over, I switched on my phone and interviewed them, speaking in Russian. Tanya had just arrived in Vilnius. She told me she “hung on” in Moscow for the first three months of the Ukraine war.
“At first, it was adrenaline, they’re shutting down Echo Moscow, everyone’s leaving, you have trouble understanding what’s happening . . . you want to see everything, you want to be a witness of everything, plus, foreign journalists are constantly calling you and saying ‘How can this be happening?’ And you feel yourself very much needed; . . . and then one month goes by, and then a second month, and then you understand you have absolutely no work. You have no perspective, you have a YouTube channel where you continue to say the things you’ve gotten used to saying, but every day you’re reading reports that yet another journalist has been arrested or put in jail. So there’s no work and there are a lot of risks and you think, ‘Why am I staying here?’”
“I thought I wanted to see it to the end,” she explained. “But a thought came to me: ‘Tanya, if they put you in jail, you won’t see how this ends, because in prison they show First Channel (state) TV and they won’t show any of how it will end.”
Many members of the elite have huge doubts—and fear—about what will happen next. Will Putin win? Will Putin lose?
I asked her how Alexey Venediktov, the well-known former editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow, was doing. The last I had heard, some unknown persons had left a pig’s head, along with scrawled anti-Semitic slurs, at his apartment door.
“Yes, there were several incidents. They threw the pig’s head. Then they closed Echo Moscow, the media were liquidated, and after a bit, they put Venediktov on the register of ‘foreign agents,’” she said. Russia’s “foreign agent” law was passed in 2012, targeting nongovernmental organizations, media outlets, individual journalists, and, most recently, individual Russian citizens who receive monetary assistance from abroad, forcing them to register and report in minute detail their financial dealings, and often imposing large fines for being a foreign agent.
There is a sliver of former Echo staff still working in Moscow, Tanya said, doing some of the popular former shows, but it’s all on YouTube and it’s called the “Live Nail,” not “Echo Moscow.” The brand name “Echo Moscow” belongs to Gazprom Media, part of the massive state-controlled energy company Gazprom.
I asked Sasha Plushchev when he arrived in Vilnius. He was on a business trip, he explained, when the war began. His flight was one of the last to leave Russia. “But I was planning on coming back to Russia. I had a ticket through Istanbul. I was checked in for the flight.”
“So why did you decide to stay abroad?” I asked him.
“They closed Echo Moscow,” Sasha said. “And I realized that if I was waiting for a signal, that was the signal.”
Other Echo Moscow journalists are in Vilnius, which has become one of the biggest centers of émigré journalism: Nino Rosebashvili, Michael Nacke, and Stanislav Kryuchkov.
I ask Tanya and Sasha if they plan to return to Russia.
“Without a doubt,” Sasha says.
“After the war?” I ask.
“Of course,” they reply, “as soon as it’s possible.”
“For me, this is a long business trip,” Tanya adds. “We continue to work, and we’ll return in order to work.”
“And can you return with Putin in power?” I ask them. “No, absolutely!” they answer. “It’s impossible.”
“Even if Putin wrote us a letter and said . . .” Tanya finishes his sentence: “Yeah, we’d write a letter to him—‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, it’s better if you go directly to the Hague. We’ll meet in court!’”
The inevitable question—how will all this end? The grinding, bloody war in Ukraine and the tense situation in Russia, which the authorities are trying to sweep under the rug. Could there actually be a revolution, as some opposition-minded Russians predict?
“On the one hand, in Russia everything is possible,” Tanya replies. “On the other hand, I often see people who have ‘wishful thinking’ (she says that in English). Everywhere they see some signals and signs that the Putin regime will be gone. But we don’t see that yet. So, I’m not just being careful about predictions, I simply don’t make them.”
Sasha looks to the Russian elite for hints of what might unfold: “I think, never before in the Russian elite, has there, on the one hand, been such unity, because they need to group together around Vladimir Putin and, on the other hand, there’s never been so much major doubt.”
“People who were ready to put up with everything, who were satisfied with everything under Putin, have stopped putting up with it. I call that ‘the rocks are shaking,’ so to speak, you know, when there’s an earthquake. Things are shaking, and you know something is going to happen.”
Many members of the elite, he believes, have huge doubts—and fear—about what will happen next. Will Putin win? Will Putin lose?
“There’s fear. And that feeling I experienced in 1991, 1993—there were similar feelings. It’s not a logical conclusion, it’s not analysis. It’s pure feeling, and I think that if it continues, that shaking will turn into an earthquake.”
All You Need Is Data
I begin my trip in Tallinn, Estonia, at the Lennart Meri Security Conference, which focuses on Russia and the Baltic region, and which I’ve attended for a number of years.
A year ago 35 people would be from Russia. Now it’s 30 or 35 are outside Russia. It’s like vice versa. We had to relocate all the people.
I sit down with Roman Dobrokhotov, the brash editor of The Insider, an online investigative newspaper now based in Riga, Latvia. “Our journalists are working from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, Britain, America by the way, and in almost all European and Western countries we have at least one person.”
The Insider, along with the investigative team Bellingcat, has produced a number of jaw-dropping investigations of Russian security services. In cooperation with Bellingcat, the German news site Der Spiegel, and CNN, The Insider uncovered travel and communication data implicating the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is currently serving time in a Russian maximum-security prison colony on trumped-up charges.
“We used to have most of our team in Russia,” Dobrokhotov tells me in fast-clipped and fluent English. “A year ago, I would say that, like, from 35 people would be from Russia. Now it’s 30 or 35 are outside Russia. It’s like vice versa, so we had to relocate all the people.”
“Now I understand that this war against journalism that Putin started a year ago—arresting journalists and labeling them ‘foreign agents,’ or ‘undesirable organizations,’ and when FSB were making searches in apartments of journalists—all of it was preparation for war in Ukraine.” Putin, Dobrokhotov claims, “understood he has no resources, both to control the situation inside, and wage war at the same time.”
“There were hundreds of criminal cases against activists, and most of them had to leave Russia,” he went on. “The FSB came to our apartment. They broke into my apartment in the middle of the night, they took all my computers, cell phones, and also documents and my passport, so they didn’t want me to leave the country. I think they understood that if I am inside the country, under some investigation, it could be too dangerous for me to write something. But I still escaped from the country, through the forest.”
People he’s met in the United States and in Europe, Dobrokhotov says, often are surprised that Russians can do investigative journalism like his. “People were absolutely sure that Russia is like North Korea; . . . but no, last summer, it was a country full of journalists, including investigative journalists, who were brave enough to publish whatever they want.”
Dobrokhotov, who is 38, says he began in “old school journalism” around 2005. Now, “we have a totally new journalism,” he continues. “Now, investigative journalists are a bunch of young people with laptops who don’t have a lot of sources, or no sources at all, but who can use open sources of intelligence, who can understand how databases work, who can navigate the black market of data. That is especially relevant for Russia, where we have all kinds of data about each person, like everything you do is in some police database, and that’s why you can penetrate this database and for 10 bucks, buy everything about everyone, including FSB agents.”
“Everyone has social networks, everyone uses a cell phone, . . . everyone flies on a plane or buys tickets to a train, has the internet—so everyone has a digital trace. Even Putin has a digital trace, because he’s flying on special governmental planes and you can trace those planes.”
But what if you’re not in Russia? What if you have fled to another country, I ask?
“Now, in the modern digital world,” he says, “you get so much information from social networks, from different sources, that you don’t usually need to witness it personally.”
Staying in Russia
Back in Vilnius, at another conference on Russian affairs, I raise that opinion with Yevgeniya Albats, one of Russia’s most experienced investigative journalists, chief editor of The New Times Magazine, a former program host on Echo Moscow radio, and author of a seminal book on the KGB. She nearly explodes.
“That’s the big problem. The journalists left!”
Albats has not fled Russia. She remains defiantly in her hometown of Moscow. When I mention another reporter who fled Moscow, she growls: “I’m in Moscow and he’s not.”
Albats believes in being on the ground, close to the action, able to talk with sources. “You no longer can call somebody and say: ‘Can you give me a comment?’ I know for sure that no one speaks over the phone anymore. Just no one! You have to meet with people in person; . . . they’re afraid, and they meet with you in a very constrained environment, you know? You’re not supposed to be seen with them, you meet with them in the parks, in the entrance buildings, in the closed clubs, so that no one will see that you entered the same room.”
Why does she remain in Moscow? It’s simple, she says: “Because somebody has to. Because it’s a shame. It’s a shame. My country, Jill, I’m a citizen of the Russian Federation. My country started the war of attrition, the war of choice, the war of conquest, against another country. We are journalists, our job is to cover this.”
If she weren’t in Moscow, Albats says, she would be in Ukraine, reporting on the war, but she had knee replacement surgery five days before the invasion, and ruefully acknowledges she’s not up to the physical rigors of combat-zone reporting. “OK, you’re afraid to be in the country, you’re afraid that, you know, tomorrow the KGB guys are going to enter your apartment and catch you. Then go to Ukraine!”
In 2014, Albats’s foundation was the third in Russia declared a “foreign agent” and she was forced to pay large fines to the government. She’s had encounters with security officials, she says, “I keep a bag with all, you know, clothing prepared if they come after me. So, it’s not pleasant.”
She quotes a colleague who has met with and interviewed Putin many times: “Putin basically explained to him that, you know, also in his judo culture, there are real enemies. You fight with them, but you respect them. You’re supposed to respect your real enemy. However, traitors, you just kill them. They’re traitors; . . . and he is using this word all the time: ‘Traitor.’”
Who Is Listening?
In the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, waves of Russians fled to Europe, to China, to the United States, with the journalists and writers among them setting up Russian-language newspapers and publications. With time, however, they lost touch with what was actually happening back in Russia. Their publications were printed on paper, and were difficult to ship back to Moscow, so they were read, for the most part, by fellow Russian exiles.
Today, whether they left after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, they can continue to be “part of the conversation” thanks to online media. If the Kremlin blocks your website—so far, at least—there are VPNs (virtual private networks) to help navigate restrictions, and access information and media outlets outside Russia.
But are Russians back home listening?
Roman Dobrokhotov says the demand for information is “very high,” even among people without a higher education living in Russia’s regions.
“But we also have a bubble of people, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, who are very loyal to the government. Most of them are elder people from the regions, and they are really zombies, so when you speak with these people, they sound like people from some religious sect who can’t even question their ideas.”
He gives an example: “A woman in Ukraine sitting in a shelter calling her mother in Crimea saying, ‘We are being bombed.’ Mother answers: ‘You are lying to me! That is false, you are brainwashed, please don’t call me again.’ This is a massive phenomenon, . . . so we don’t try to persuade these people because we understand that this is not our job. This is a job for, like, a psychiatrist. . . . We are working for the other 70 percent of Russians, which is more than enough.”
Putin Doesn’t Get It
I’m sitting on a park bench in Riga, Latvia, with Kirill Martynov, editor-in-chief of the new media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe. He’s also an academic, a philosopher. A woman walks by and waves. For a relatively big city, Riga seems like a small town for the Russian journalists who have found respite here.
He’s been in Riga since the war began. “It’s funny to me,” he says, “because I have to take care of my journalists and I don’t have . . . any time to find any solutions for me, so I’m still a tourist. . . . I’m also trying to get permanent status here.” The Latvian government has been helpful, he tells me: “They understand pretty well who we are and what kind of work we did in Russia and why we are here, so it’s much easier.” He never wanted to go abroad, he explains, but he made the best decision for himself and “to save professional dignity.”
If the name Novaya Gazeta sounds familiar, it is probably because of what happened to the publication and its long-time editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, in 2021. On April 7 this year, aboard a train, he was splashed with caustic red paint, apparently in retaliation for his website’s coverage of the Ukraine war. The week before, he had suspended the website and its social media accounts “until the end of the war in Ukraine,” after the government’s media controller issued two back-to-back warnings. It was, Martynov says, was “like a message from the mafia.” In June, Muratov auctioned off his Nobel Prize and will give the $103.5 million it retrieved to UNICEF to help Ukrainian children.
“We worked [in Moscow] for more than a month after the war began,” he says, “and while we can’t provide any journalism in Russia anymore, we just decided to save the team, and to find some ways to provide information back to Russia.”
That’s how Novaya Gazeta Europe was born. Its staff is made up of journalists from the original Novaya Gazeta, but it has no legal connection to that entity. That fact, however, did not stop the Russian government from blocking its website within nine days of its launch.
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic helped prepare the team in Moscow for working virtually. In early March, Martynov ended up working from Europe for a few weeks and, he says, “It was quite easy, really, just to meet your team on Zoom and discuss some issues.”
That’s something Vladimir Putin doesn’t understand, he says. “Putin was raised like a Soviet person and he strongly believes if you have very centralized, very expensive TV, that means you control everything. That’s why they’re shelling TV stations in Ukraine, for example. ‘If Ukrainians don’t have their TV, that means that we can control it easily.’”
Journalists who are still in Russia are under colossal pressure, and are being chased out of the country.
“Putin personally, he is like a person who never used a smart phone and never probably was online and never understand how it works. . . . If you invade a country with 40 million people, there are 40 million people, all of them just have smart phones and after that, you know, it’s a moral and media disaster. Because 40 million smart phones just, you know, record all that happens.”
The fact that he was prevented by law from using any information about the war that did not come from the Russian military made it impossible to report honestly about the conflict. There was a huge discussion in the Moscow newsroom, he says, about whether they should stop publishing immediately. So, they asked their subscribers—more than 90 percent of them said they had to continue.
The last edition of Novaya Gazeta was March 28 and included reports about the Russian army, the consequences of war, the humanitarian crisis, the economic situation, and some human interest stories. “Millions of Russians read it,” Martynov tells me, so it was still a good decision, you know, to pretend to live with this wartime censorship. After that, it was really over.”
Why is Putin allowing some of the best-known and respected journalists to leave Russia? Martynov thinks it’s part of political theory: “Because if they don’t have all of us in Russia, . . . we don’t provide a lot of pressure inside. If you let all people who are strongly against this war, just let them go, . . . yeah, then everyone supports it!”
Sitting with Martynov in a Riga park, I sense that he sees a deeper meaning in his flight from Russia. He was an assistant professor of philosophy at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics for 13 years, and his passion is political philosophy. He was fired two years ago.
“They wrote me that, you know, ‘Professor Martynov, don’t you want to delete this publication on your Facebook about President Putin? It would be so nice from you!’”
This, he says, gives Russians forced into exile common cause with citizens of other countries in the region forced to flee their homeland.
“I think that we can try to be a kind of pro-European Russian newspaper in Europe because there are a lot of people who understand Russian here, they are interested in Russian affairs and the future of Eastern Europe, and they don’t have any real mainstream media. They are Belarusians, and Russians, and some Ukrainians. We don’t want to teach these people anything, we just want to be a voice for them, and we want to be a newspaper which provides this kind of liberal and human rights values, about Russia, and in the Russian language.”
The Old Rules No Longer Apply
At the security conference in Tallinn, I meet Anton Barbashin, founder of Riddle Russia, what he describes as an “online think tank.” He and his wife Olga launched the site together with a Polish think tank in 2015 and have since lived in Europe. In 2018, they launched Riddle independently from Vilnius. It publishes in both Russian and English.
People who write for Riddle, he says, can be anywhere in the world. “It really doesn’t matter where they decide they want to spend time to be there informationally. And I know a lot of people that are now based in some of the European capitals, informationally they remain in Russia, . . . [but] they are not bound by Russian limitations. They can analyze information as fully as they need, they can—you know—call things as they are.”
But when someone outside of Russia makes a political statement, he says, “Then it gets a little tricky; . . . most people inside the country could be skeptical of political claims or demands that come from Russians from the outside.”
Without a doubt, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sharpened the political debate.
“A lot of people in Russia already understand that there is no going further with Putin for Russia,” Barbashin says. “Putin started this war and he and a very small group of people made the call. We can speak about the collective responsibility of Russian society, that’s all there, but there is a group of people that are actually guilty.”
“What we’re seeing now, essentially, is kind of the continued collapse of the Soviet Union,” he says. “It’s not about NATO, it’s not about anything, it’s just Russia’s not being able to part with its empire.”
The Russian government, and its state-controlled media, he says, are scaring Russians, trying to convince them that if Russia loses the war in Ukraine, the West will treat them as “second-class people.” But a lot of Russians, he believes, want to see Russia as part of the world: “We don’t have to call it the West, we don’t have to call it the European Union, whatever, I mean, we could call it “Global North,” just a good, decent relationship with good economic cooperation, open borders, and so forth, the open society, right? But what it would cost? What would be the terms?”
Russians need a “beacon of hope,” he believes. “Thinking long term, Russian political figures, whether it’s opposition from within, or from the outside, they could propose a vision to the Russians that, look, if we part with Putin and his legacy, there’s this that we could aspire to.”
“We’ve had this experience already before, that if Russia is left alone, and is not given a hand, it might [be] going down a very bad path. I think, honestly, if we’re kind of just rational about it, it’s not in the interest of the US, or the EU, or Russia itself to kind of let Russia run loose and walk on the path of disintegration. That could create ripple effects all over Eurasia that are much worse than what we are seeing now in Ukraine.”
Smelling the Corpses
None of the journalists I spoke with know what will happen next. All of them intend to return to Russia, but they can’t say when. What this means for their profession, and for them personally, is unclear.
In Vilnius, I see Sergey Parkhomenko, a long-time journalist, publisher, and political commentator now living in Greece. He says many of Russia’s journalists are now in a “professional crisis.”
“First of all, [there’s] exhaustion from the subject generally, and the feeling that the war started, and it’s a catastrophic event, and in three days it will be over. . . . Then it was three days more, then three days more, then three weeks, then three months, and no one knows how long this is going to continue, and it’s impossible to prolong that level of attention.”
“Second, there’s the feeling that this, let’s says ‘echo chamber’ when the same people are talking among themselves, the same experts, are circulating on the same 10 media—YouTube, or giving interviews everywhere, saying the same thing over and over again.”
Some journalists who fled Russia, he thinks, will despair: “Some will have that first reflex, ‘Ah! They kicked us out! They shut down, destroyed my media! But you can’t stop me!’ Some despair, some get tired, some calm down, and some think, well, there are other professions I can work in.”
Parkhomenko agrees that Russian journalists can have an impact working from Europe, the US, or other countries, but he insists, “That journalism isn’t all journalism.”
“You need to live in Irkutsk in order to make a tour of small towns and villages in Tuva, Buryatia, or the Baikal region and see how they are burying the people who are perishing in Ukraine. It’s not happening in Moscow. They don’t know those people, don’t talk with them, they don’t hear the sounds or smell the corpses.”
Journalists who are still in Russia are under colossal pressure, and are being chased out of the country. “The Russian government today is consciously engaged in destroying them,” he says. “They see them as a threat to their informational monopoly and slowly they are separating them from Russia or putting them in prison.”
“Putin’s Russia is trying to—how did they say it in Nazi Germany? To reach a ‘final solution.’ They want a final solution for independent media. They think they should not be in Russia at all. Completely!” ‘When we win the war,’ they think, ‘we’ll hunt them abroad, we’ll send people with Novichok to poison them. Not immediately but later. We’ll be able to do it. We have time.’ That is their view of the world, that’s how they think of their task, and they are going to achieve it.”
Who Am I?
Back in the States, I text Misha Fishman, the friend with whom I was going to have coffee with in Moscow but who went on a “vacation” with his family as the war started.
It was a long, circuitous journey from Moscow, he tells me. They flew to Tbilisi, Georgia, but he was denied entry. They grabbed a flight to Baku, Azerbaijan, where they stayed for a while and applied for Israeli citizenship. For now, they live in Israel.
Fishman’s show on Dozhd TV was sharply critical of the Putin government, and he is sure he cannot go back to Moscow. Now that he is outside Russia, he says, “I’m not in a risky position anymore. I’m safe.”
When he first left Russia, he explains, “I couldn’t open my mouth; . . . I’m still in this limbo.” He has a new YouTube channel but admits, “Now I’m very different from what I was before.”
“For 20 years I was part of my own story. I never separated me from my country. And now I’m not. Who am I? Am I part of Russia anymore? Does my voice matter? I don’t have accurate answers to this.”
In Israel, with its large population of citizens from Russia and the Soviet Union, people recognize him, Fishman says. “In time of war, it matters. It’s a reason to keep going.”
But where is Russia going? “It’s going backward, back in time to the Middle Ages.” Russia, he says, “is dying.”
Jill Dougherty is an expert on Russia. She is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies; a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington; and a member of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute Advisory Council. Dougherty also serves on the Wilson Quarterly Advisory Council.
Cover photo: A woman holds a banner with the inscription "Journalism is not terrorism" in support of independent journalists working in Belarus near the Belarus embassy in Moscow. File photo, August 2020. Shutterstock/NickolayV.
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