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Southern Siberian Religions


SOUTHERN SIBERIAN RELIGIONS . Southern Siberia is a region covered by a large wooded band, called taiga, that stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and is bordered by two treeless zones, the tundra to the north and the steppe to the south. The taiga evokes an entire procession of images: It is here where images of impenetrable immensity and absolute refuge mix with the intimacy of nature alone. The dense mass of huge dark trees is penetrated only by the great rivers (Ob, Yenisei, Lena, and tributaries) that roll their vast waters toward the Arctic Ocean, flooding their valleys in the summer and offering their frozen surfaces as bridges in the winter.

Throughout history the natural environment has prohibited any concentration of population; people continue to live in small scattered groups and to devote themselves to various kinds of hunting, fishing, and harvesting, which causes population shifts, varying in number and distance, throughout the year. These forest groups (from small isloated ethnic groups like the Ket1,100 in 1979to much larger groups) belong to one or the other of two great families of the Siberian peoples: Uralic to the west of the Yenisei River and Altaic to the east. Moreover, the majority of both groups live in the zones bordering the forest; these areas serve as pastoral land, while the forest is a hunting ground. Hence, one finds ethnic groups divided between taiga and tundra or between taiga and steppe. It must be noted, however, that forest peoples of different families are more similar to each other than to steppe or tundra peoples of their own family; there are specific religious features associated with hunting life in the forest.

This distribution between taiga and tundra or taiga and steppe encourages a comparative approach, deliberately focusing on the specific religious implications of the forest, as opposed to the steppe and the tundra. However, in order to avoid the pitfall of ecological determinism, the form of societal organization and mode of thought must be considered with the natural environment (more precisely, the means of access to natural resources). This approach can also be hampered by the nature of the sources and facts themselves. The representations described in this article are those of the pre-Soviet period, that is, of the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Forest Peoples

The Uralic and Altaic families each may be divided into smaller units. The two Siberian branches of the former are the Ob-Ugrian and the Samoyed. The Ob-Ugrian people, essentially a forest-dwelling group, consists of the Khanty and the Mansi, known in the eleventh century as the Yugra to the Russians of Novgorod, who traded with them for skins and furs. After their entrance into the Russian empire in the seventeenth century they became known as the Ostiaks and Voguls, respectively. At the time of the 1979 census there were 21,000 Khanty and 7,600 Mansi (a minor increase from the 1926 figures of 17,800 and 5,700, respectively).

Because of their proximity to European Russia, the Khanty and Mansi were severely exposed to the impact of colonialism. Far worse than the burden of taxation, the appearance of new illnesses, and the exactions from civil servants were the appropriation of the best land, that bordering the rivers, by Russian peasants and the forced conversion to Orthodox Christianity; both actions provoked strong opposition. Nevertheless, rather than staging a revolt, which would be quickly crushed, some preferred submission and assimilation while others elected to escape into the depths of the forest. The traditional society of the Khanty and Mansi is organized in exogamic moietiesthe "hare moiety" and the "bear moiety," each having descended through the male line from one clan, which eventually divided into many.

The Samoyed branch, settled primarily in the tundra, also has groups living in the forest: the Selkup, in particular, and a small group of the Nentsy. The Selkup (6,000 in 1926; 3,600 in 1979; called the Yenisei Ostiaks in the past when the Ket were included) were forced back from the Yenisei Valley to valleys situated farther west (Taz, Turukhan, and Yeloguy) with the onset of Russian farming. Here too, each exogamic moiety"eagle" and "nutcracker crow"includes several patrilineal clans divided into various territorial units.

The other major group of forest people, the Altaic family, is divided into the Turkic, Mongol, and Manchu-Tunguz branches; these comprise the principal population of eastern Siberia. The Turkic branch (722,500 in Siberia in 1979), the most important of the three, is barely represented in the forest. However, certain ethnic groups, while primarily settled in the tundra (Yakuts) or steppe (eastern Tuva, Tofa, southern Shor), are found in the adjacent mountainous forest area as well.

On the other hand, the Toj-Tuva of the upper Yenisei River, the Tofa of the Sayan Mountains, and the Shor of the Altaic forest still practiced the traditional kinds of hunting in the nineteenth century. The Tuva and Tofa combine this with the raising, riding, and milking of deer. Each clan of the Shor has its own hunting ground; any infraction of the system entails vengeance. Each Shor hunter is entitled to hunt in the grounds of his wife's clan and must share his booty with her father.

The Mongol branch is represented in the forest by the Ekhirit-Bulagat Buriats who are native to the Cisbai-kalian forests. These people were not influenced by the Mongolian empire. Although they did borrow animal breeding from their Mongolian cousins of the steppe in the sixteenth century, they have nonetheless retained an authentic hunting culture as well as the remaining visible traces of a social organization divided into exogamic moieties (Ekhirit and Bulagat), with each moiety further subdivided into several patrilineal clans.

Stemming from the Tunguz branch are the Eveny (12,000 in 1979), the various Tunguz groups along the Amur River, and the Evenki, the Tunguz of the taiga (28,000 in 1979 as compared to 38,804 in 1926). Contrary to the other Siberian peoples whose populations are concentrated in a particular region (albeit in scattered groups), they are scattered throughout all of eastern Siberia. Still identifiable in spite of a variety of lifestyles, the traditional Tunguz is a hunter, an unparalleled observer and indefatigable traveler who is also incessantly driven by the search for game. It was the Tunguz who were chosen as guides by all explorers of Siberia.

Hunting, Alliance, and the Horizontal Conception of the World

Considered in terms of the life they lead and the type of society in which they live, the Siberian hunters' conceptions are based on a series of principles that create a structural analogy between the social, economic, and religious domains and that inform the mechanism of the interaction of these domains. Hunting is conceived of as an alliance in which the game is equivalent to the woman: The exchanging partners in each case are on the same plane, thus the world is thought of as horizontal.

Natural beings that supply sustenance are thought to be organized, like humans, into clans and linked to each other as well as to human clans through relations of alliance and vengeance. To be outside the clan is anomalous, and brings illness, death, and other trouble; everything possible is done to avoid such an anomaly. This conception applies primarily to game that is consumed but is in general not applied either to fish or to game hunted for fur, an occupation that is engaged in to meet external demand, thus making the game simple merchandise. Although fishing is a traditional practice and often supplies an important part of their subsistence, fish is still thought of simply as food, and rarely involves the same ritual treatment as game. (On the other hand, marine mammals on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk are considered to be hunted and not fished; they are classified under the category of consumed game.) Nor is this concept applied to gathered products, which are not conceived of as beings and which depend on a woman's activity without symbolic value. Likewise, only game that is consumed forms the subject of sociologically pertinent collective practices (hunting, ritual of consumption) and popular discourse (myths, tales, stories).

Birds appear to be particularly rich in symbolic value, a value that derives primarily from their signaling function. Thus, birds of prey and birds living on carrion, which signal the presence of game, serve as evocations of hunting. Migrators, which signal the coming and going of the seasons, evoke the voyage to the supernatural world and the circulation of souls between the world of the living and that of the dead.

Species-specific hunting and consumption restrictions are imposed upon each clan based on the mythical animal that is regarded as the clan's founder. This system has led many writers to speak of totemism, but the theory linked with this term is outdated today and even forgotten. Such a distribution of symbolic attributesfound in other places in the worldis to be understood as the clans' way of assuring networks of relationships among themselves and the necessary complementarity for general cohesion. However, the facts are insufficient to allow a systematic establishment of the roots of the symbolic exploitation of one animal species or another, except those whose relationship can be assimilated to that of a hunter and a guide (e.g., the eagle or crow).

In the representations and the ritual treatment of the slain animal, the taking of game is reduced to a taking of meat. The bones are not destroyed but are disposed of (along with the head and other parts believed to contain the vital breath of life) in such a way that the animal will be reincarnated or that another animal of the same species will appear. Seemingly out of gratitude to the animal that came to offer its flesh, the hunter treats it as a guest of honor and invites it to return. That he symbolically takes only meat and not the animal as such prevents the hunt from being likened to the murder of a member of another clan, which would unleash a chain of vengeance. It also happens that the death of the animal is recognized, but the responsibility for it is attributed to a stranger belonging to another tribe.

Just as there is a system of matrimonial alliance that legitimizes the individual's taking a wife, there is a system of economic (or one could say "food") alliance that justifies the hunter's taking of game. These two systems are often compared in detail in mythical discourse, as are their subjects and their protagonists: wife and game, the taker of wife and hunter, giver of wife and giver of game. As opposed to the others, the giver of game is an imaginary being, generally called the "spirit of the forest" and qualified as "rich." With this title and that of "owner of hunted species," he is indeed a "supernatural" power in the etymological sense of the word.

In societies divided into two exogamic moieties, the matrimonial system is one of restricted exchange, which is realized in the marriage of bilateral cross-cousins (children of both the mother's brother and the father's sister) and which amounts to an exchange of sisters. Whereas this system is sociologically simple and efficient considering the precarious conditions of life known to the Siberian hunters, it is nevertheless lacking in the constraints (debt of one side, claim from the other) necessary for its perpetuation: Partners are released immediately through the simple act of exchange. However, the system is conceived of by people who bring it into operation as though it involves three stages or three partners, thereby preventing a person from perceiving himself as both giver and taker at the same time with respect to the same partner and delaying the obligation of exchange. Thus, the taker's and giver's positions toward the same partner alternate from one generation to the next. In this way the system becomes self-perpetuating within a patrilineal line: Compensation for the wife taken by the father is a daughter of this same woman given by the son.

The hypothesis of the analogy of hunting with the matrimonial system leads both to the discovery of what compensation the hunter gives for the game he has taken and to an understanding of what are otherwise inexplicable practices: These come from the need for a third partner to create dynamics in the exchange system. The compensation for game taken is one of the same nature as the game itselffoodand is given by the hunter's wife to small tame animals (most of which belong to species that are neither hunted nor used: eagles, swans, cranes, nutcracker crows, foxes, etc.) as well as animal representations (furs, wooden figurines, etc.). The latter (Selkup, khekhe ; Tuva, eeren ; Buriat, ongon ; Tunguz, singken, sevek ), made at the time of marriage, are "fed" pieces of meat through their mouths, smeared with blood, and anointed with animal fat. In this way, the food taken from the animal world is symbolically returned. From the point of view of a tripartite system, these tame animals or animal representations occupy the taker position with respect to the hunter and the debtor position with respect to the forest spirit, the giver of game. If they are not fed, these spirits supposedly prevent the hunter from taking game and cause him and his family to fall ill and even die.

Built on an analogous model, these two systemsmatrimonial and economicalso make use of mutual compensation. Frequently, the myths and tales attribute a loss in the realm of alliance (abduction of the hunter's wife or sister while he is away hunting) to excessive hunting. In the Evenk ritual called the Feast of the Bear, the taker of a wife becomes a supplier of game for his wife's brother. The numerous restrictions concerning the hunter's sexual activity before the hunt, on the one hand, and the wife's behavior (notably concerning menstrual blood) with respect to hunting weapons on the other, may also be interpreted in terms of maintaining a balance between hunting and alliance. Furthermore, in these two systems, the act of taking requires the observance of strict rules vis-à-vis the giver, such as the giving of specific offerings and demonstrating the qualities of taker. One will note that what is offered to the forest spirit (incense, tobacco, amusing stories) is intended to put him in a good mood and make him laugh, so that he will be easily persuaded to release the game: The catch involves some cunning.

Whereas these two systems and their interaction normally function autonomously, they are dependent both structurally and functionally upon the third system, shamanism, which is built on an analogous model. Based on the idea that the life of the body is subordinate to what is conveniently called the "soul" that dwells in it, this system ensures the exchange of souls between their supernatural dispensers and their natural human and animal supports. Upon death, the souls return to the spirits (which suggests the hypothesis of their reincarnation within the same clan). The artisan of this circulation is the shaman, who, it is believed, obtains the souls of game and people from their supernatural dispensers.

From the standpoint of the system, the shaman is homologous to both the wife-taker and the hunter, a fact that is often clearly demonstrated by the idea that he has a symbolic wife who is the daughter of either the forest spirit or water spirit (Selkup), or of the earth spirit Khosedam, as the Ket believe. The office of the shaman is generally transmitted through the patrilineal line, usually from grandfather to grandson; agnatic relatives oversee the rites of investiture and control the position and the exercise of the shamanic function. Thus, among the Selkup, the death of every adult blood relative entails the destruction of the shaman's drum and its replacement by a larger one. In fact, the shaman's power increases as each soul of a deceased relative rejoins the spirit world. The very presence of the shaman in the midst of his group guarantees the existence of a relationship with the soul-giving spirits. This relationship can be reinforced by certain detailed roles, such as the Buriat shaman acting as godfather to newborns and the Tunguz shaman leading the souls of the dead to the otherworld. However, the shaman's active intervention is essential whenever there is a disturbance: scarcity of game; lack of descendants; or departure of a soul, which, by leaving the body vacant, renders it sick and soon dead. The shaman, who performs a divination procedure (throwing an object that falls on the "good" or "bad" side, answering his questions "yes" or "no"), then determines the cause of the disturbance. The two major causes considered are infractions of the rules governing the exchanges (excessive or insufficient hunting or alliances, inadequate amount of food given to tamed animals and figurines, violation of taboos concerning hunting, etc.) and the death of any animal or human surviving outside the framework of the clan and thus outside the system, which results in a wandering, unintegrated soul that is consequently harmful. Mediator par excellence, the shaman then negotiates a return to order with the spirits, tricking them somewhat, but also giving them offerings or a new cult (for example, by making a new figurine to be fed, zoomorphic in the event of a hunting infraction and anthropomorphic in the event of a deceased outsider to be reinstated). Thus, he symbolically secures the reappearance of game, the birth of children, the return of the soul to the ailing person's body, and so on.

The taking (or retaking) of these souls cannot be realized by the shaman without the aid of what is usually called his "auxiliary spirits," equivalent to such equally essential auxiliaries as the intermediary in the marriage and the beater or guide in the hunt. He sends these spirits to search for the soul that has strayed from the sick and to track down vengeful spirits, descended from the frustrated souls of those who died violent deaths, to keep them from doing harm. The Selkup rite involving the "dark tent" is held in total darkness in the presence of the shaman's kin and consists of the shaman's proving to them his ability to stir up his auxiliary spirits and summon their services. His power increases with their number and promptness in hastening to his call. Their remuneration is found in the type of offering given them (primarily food) and, for those descended from wandering souls, in their reinstatement.

In each system, the relationship between the taker and his auxiliary has the character of a personal contract, updatable and reversible, corresponding to an exchange of services. These services, which are not identical but complementary, are not organized into a hierarchy: Thus, hunter and beater or guide have an equivalent status and an equal part regardless of the catch. This relationship between taker and auxiliary is based on the general principle of a dualist organization of the operating units from various levels, which finds expression in the very name of the Khanty-Mansi (bear, hare) or Selkup (eagle, crow) moieties (in the myths of origin, the moieties being descended either from two brothers-in-law or from two brothers, forming separate lines), in the custom of nomadic camping set up by two allied families, and so on. The Feast of the Bear, celebrated by most of these peoples, is still the totalizing ritual par excellence, despite some differences. There, the organization in moieties of the different units and the three systems of exchange come into play, a fact that illustrates the exceptional symbolic versatility of the bear.

While the forest world is at once aerial and terrestrial and dominates symbolic space, the aquatic world also plays an important role. The souls of the dead descend along the course of the great rivers; boats or representations of boats appear in certain funerary or commemorative rites. Because of the orientation of the rivers, both the north and downstream water are associated with death. Symmetrically, upstream water and the south have a positive connotation. Birds that migrate from the south are offered ritual receptions upon arrival and invitations to return upon leaving, as if to materialize the rebirth of life (since it is believed that they bring the souls of newborns). The simultaneous presence of quadrupeds and birds does not really affect the uniqueness of the forest, represented by the omnipresent but indivisible element that is the tree. The declivity of the rivers there does not result in a separation of "upstream" from "downstream." "Up" and "down" are not superposed positions; rather, they are contiguous in the depth of the same horizontal plane, a plane in which forest and water are essential constituents conceived of, respectively, as giver of game and giver of fish.

Cattle Breeding and the Vertical Conception of the World

The notion of superposed worldsand correlatively of a vertical liaison between themdevelops from the opposition of upstream/downstream, which is reinterpreted in terms of up/down and then divided into the oppositions of sky/earth and earth/lower (or subterranean) world. This is due to the combined influence of two factors: the adoption of animal breeding and incorporation into a state organization, the Russian empire.

In that the adoption of animal breeding (or, with a subtle difference, agriculture) creates a patrimony to be handed down (herds, fields), ties of descent filiation develop and the systems of relationships tend to become vertical. Thus the alliance increasingly attempts to postpone reciprocity and begins to follow the model of a "generalized exchange" (according to which the clan from which one takes a wife is not the same as the clan to which one gives a sister). Instead of becoming segmented, the clans organize their lineages into a hierarchy. In the economic system, alimentary compensation is given to a "consecrated" or "tabooed" reindeer (or other domestic animal), fed along with its own herd but never utilized. Whereas the ritual treatment of the bones of the game animal aimed at its reincarnation on earth, the sacrifice of the domestic animal (always slaughtered in a manner different than the hunted wild animal) is intended to increase the herds of spirits. The animal gradually becomes less a being and more a product; the proportion of zoomorphic representations decreases. This ideological change, only initiated with the animal breeding in the forest, expresses itself through the obviously production-oriented breeding found in the steppe (and, to a lesser degree, in the tundra). Associated with the hierarchical centralization, it lays the groundwork for the emergence of transcendental entities and is receptive to the adoption of a world religion with dogma and clergy, such as Russian Orthodoxy or Buddhism.

It is significant that the animal breeders living in the forest consider their own shamans as decadent and the shamans of their neighbors, who remained, for the most part, dependent on hunting, as powerful. Such is the case with the Nentsy toward the Entsy, the Entsy toward the Selkup and the Ket, and with all of them toward the Tunguz. This is because in the cattle breeders' ideology the giver is now conceived of in terms of the irreversible mode of filiation and therefore acquires the status of absolute superiority. He is no longer a partner with whom one negotiates, but a master on whom one is dependent. The shaman's capacity to act is therefore necessarily reduced in principle (since he is more dependent and has fewer opportunities to negotiate). As for the spirits, the pastoral ideology organizes them into a hierarchy, multiplies and localizes them (which leads to the notion of spirit-master of separate places), and also develops supporting myths and figures of the founders and creators over the ancestors.

The Russian empire instituted Peter the Great's idea of "only one God, only one Tsar." At the same time, the Orthodox church searched for (or created) indigenous equivalents compatible with its own concepts and refused all compromise with other beliefs. The traditional spirits were lowered to the rank of "devils and demons" and confined to the underworld. The promotion of heavenly bodies (sky, sun) to the rank of supreme being owes as much to the Christian attempt to support the idea of God as to the native effort to set up a rival against it and make more powerful their traditional view of the world (since a God is conceived of as "higher" than mere ancestors).

The case of the sun (Num, Nom) among the Uralic peoples is an example of this process. Its artificially constructed image as a supreme being is vague, fluctuating, and without ritual importance. In the myths of creation attributed to it the only constant element is its opposition to Nga, its (or his) son or brother-in-law, depending upon the case, an opposition that, rather than illustrating the Christian notion of a relationship between God and the devil, is indicative of a fundamental problem of kinship among the Uralic peoples concerning the opposition between older and younger people that is the framework of the creation myths. The same is true with the Tunguz concerning the bugha ("sky," derived from an earlier meaning, "moose"). Relationships with the spirits are reinterpreted. That which was nothing but a reaction by the spirits (beneficial or baleful) to the treatment received from humans is radicalized into a moral opposition of good and evil. The shaman's "voyages" to the forest and aquatic worlds are replaced by an ascension into the sky or descent to the underworld. Nevertheless, the traditional pragmatic sense remains: The icons of the saints, interpreted as the souls of the dead, are "fed" in the same way as traditional representations in order to ensure the proper continuation of domestic life.

See Also

Bears; Birds; Khanty and Mansi Religion; Num; Ongon; Samoyed Religion; Shamanism; Tunguz Religion; Yakut Religion.


Delaby, Laurence. Chamanes toungouses. Études mongoles et sibérienes, no. 7. Paris, 1976. Analytical bibliography of Tunguz shamanism with a carefully documented general presentation.

Delaby, Laurence, et al. L'ours, l'autre de l'homme. Études mongoles et sibériennes, no. 11. Paris, 1980. Collection of documents and analyses on the symbolism of the bear, which serves to conceptualize "the other": the allied or the deceased. The mechanism of the alliance seen through the Evenk Feast of the Bear is analyzed by A. de Sales.

Diószegi, Vilmos, ed. Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia. Uralic and Altaic Series, no. 57. Budapest, 1968. Collection of articles, primarily by Soviet and Hungarian authors.

Diószegi, Vilmos, and Mihály Hoppál, eds. Shamanism in Siberia. Translated by S. Simon. Budapest, 1978. Collection of articles on various subjects.

Donner, Kai. Among the Samoyed in Siberia. Edited by Genevieve A. Highland and translated by Rinehart Kyler. New Haven, 1954. The account of a long voyage through eastern Siberia from 1911 to 1913, originally published in German in 1926, is filled with ethnographical notations hitherto unpublished.

Hadjú, Péter. The Samoyed Peoples and Languages. Translated by Marianne Esztergar and Attila P. Csanyi. Uralic and Altaic Series, no. 14. Bloomington, Ind., 1963. A good manual and guide that reviews and classifies the knowledge on the various Samoyed groups.

Hoppál, Mihály, ed. Shamanism in Eurasia. 2 vols. Göttingen, 1984. Collection of articles on various subjects.

Levin, G. M., and L. P. Potapov, eds. The Peoples of Siberia. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn. Chicago, 1964. Historico-ethnographical encyclopedia, according only very limited space to social and religious facts.

Lot-Falck, Eveline. Les rites de chasse chez les peuples sibériens. Paris, 1953. General panorama organized by topic, including the clan organization of animals, rites intended to permit the "resurrection" of game, and the abundance of rules that release the hunter from guilt and legitimize his catch.

Mazin, Anatolii Ivanovich. Traditsionnye verovaniia i obriady Evenkov-Orochonov (konets XIX-nachalo XX v.). Novosibirsk, 1984. An excellent description of hunting rites and shamanism among a Tunguz tribe (the Orochon).

Paproth, Hans-Joachim. Studien über das Bärenzeremoniell, vol. 1, Bärenjagdriten und Bärenfeste bei den tunguschen Völkern. Uppsala, 1976. Comprehensive panorama of facts on the Feast of the Bear.

Vasilevich, G. M. Evenki: Istoriko-etnograficheskie ocherki (XVIII-nachalo XX v.). Leningrad, 1968. A remarkable book, the result of a long period of work on the subject of the Evenki.

Vdovin, I. S., ed. Priroda i chelovek v religioznykh predstavle-niiakh narodov Sibiri i Severa. Leningrad, 1976. Collection of papers devoted to religious representations about man and nature in Siberia. Contains very valuable materials.

Vdovin, I. S., ed. Khristianstvo i lamaizm u korennogo naseleniia Sibiri. Leningrad, 1979. Collection of articles tracing the history of religious contacts and presenting the various effects of their influence. The introduction, a global assessment of christianization, takes into account the linguistic obstacle and the refusal of Christianity to compromise with local beliefs.

Vdovin, I. S., ed. Problemy istorii obshchestvennogo soznaniia aborigenov Sibiri. Leningrad, 1981. Many papers in this volume concern shamanism in Siberia, based on data collected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Voyages chamaniques. 2 vols. Special issue of L'ethnographie (Paris), nos. 7475 (1977) and nos. 8788 (1982).

New Sources

Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam. Shamanism: Soviet Studies of Traditional Religion in Siberia and Central Asia. Armonk, N.Y., 1990.

Buell, Janet. Ancient Horsemen of Siberia. Brookfield, Conn., 1998.

Diószegi, Vilmos, and Mihály Hoppál, eds. Folk Beliefs and Shamanistic Traditions in Siberia. Translated by S. Simon and Stephen P. Dunn. Budapest, 1996.

Jacobson, Esther. The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief. New York, 1993.

Martynov, Anatolii Ivanovich. The Ancient Art of Northern Asia. Translated and edited by Demitri B. Shimkin and Edith M. Shimkin. Urbana, 1991.

Roberte Hamayon (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka
Revised Bibliography

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