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‘Let’s make something uplifting’ Why Russia’s liberal creatives seek grants from an institute that pours money into online Kremlin propaganda

Source: Meduza

Every year, the Russian government allocates dozens of millions of rubles for propaganda projects ranging from films and TV series to videogames. Much of this so-called “patriotic” content is focused on glorifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and discrediting its critics. The share of this type of content in the Russian media is growing, and a key organization behind this trend is Russia’s Institute for Internet Development (IID), headed by media executive Alexey Goreslavsky, made famous, among other things, by his hostile takeover of the independent news outlet, then headed by Galina Timchenko, who has since founded Meduza. Our special correspondent Svetlana Reiter and two investigative journalists from iStories, Maria Zholobova and Anastasia Korotkova, have collaborated on this story, trying to find out how IID operates and why even Russia’s anti-war dissidents turn to it for funding.

Conflict-of-interest disclosure: This story addresses the biography of Alexey Goreslavsky, a media executive who took over the Russian news outlet in 2014, dismissing its then editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko, who has since founded Meduza. One of the authors of this article, Svetlana Reiter, was employed by at the time of Goreslavsky’s takeover of that media outlet.
  • IID’s start: With the support of Putin’s then first deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Institute for Internet Development (IID) launched in 2015 with a mission “to establish dialogue between stakeholders in the Internet ecosystem and the government.”
  • Finding its groove: IID fell on hard times in 2016 when Volodin moved to the State Duma. Funding was cut and the organization’s personnel dwindled until a former Rambler & Co executive named Alexey Goreslavsky joined the presidential administration and put IID on a path to becoming a key player in Russia’s allocation of state funding for youth content.
  • Core dysfunctions: Insiders in Russia’s entertainment industry say the IID’s grants often go “predictably” to the same people choosing winners. There’s also considerable deceit in reporting audience sizes for the content created under these auspices, for example, with production studios inflating view counts on VK to exaggerate their projects’ appeal.
  • Moral dilemmas: While much of IID’s funding flows as expected to promotions of “the Kremlin’s military-patriotic agenda,” well-known creators who haven’t emigrated from Russia also apply for the institute’s grants, reasoning that they must navigate “shrinking sponsorship options” and do their best to counterbalance “trash” with whatever “peace-loving” content they can manage.

‘An imitation of ferocious activity’

Last March, the television director Roman Volobuyev was invited to film a new TV series. The pitch described it as a thriller about some Russian teens who fall under the spell of a “foreign video platform” managed by a malicious algorithm. The synopsis provided by the video-production company Zarya described the adventures of a high-school student named Anton, whose younger sister Nastya runs away from home, which spurs Anton to “begin his investigation.”

“He discovers,” the summary went on, “that Nastya has joined a strange Internet youth group managed by someone who has convinced the kids that he’s the only one who understands them.” Anton then realizes that “the teens are being brainwashed” by an algorithm set up to manipulate them.

The working title for the series, Generation U, sealed Volobuyev’s impression that the “foreign video platform” in question had to be based on YouTube (now rumored to be on its way to being blocked in Russia). “In our series,” the proposal explained, “we want to show the audience that the possible block on foreign services has a positive value, because their destructiveness and the unreliable information they publish have a negative impact on the young people’s mental health and their moral and ethical values. Being potentially disconnected from those services is a way towards salvation.” The production had been commissioned by IID — Russia’s Institute for Internet Development.

Volobuyev turned down the invitation without giving it too much thought. “I’m not ready to deal with scum,” he says. “Maybe I’m just a pig-headed idiot, but there’s got to be some principles.”

IID was founded in 2015 to “establish dialogue between stakeholders in the Internet ecosystem and the government.” The initiative had come from the information scientist Sergey Plugotarenko (head of Russia’s Association for Electronic Communication, or RAEC, who is also on the board of the pro-Putin All-Russia People’s Front) and his longtime colleague Sergey Grebennikov, who then headed ROTsIT, an organization claiming to “develop and disseminate Internet technologies serving the interests of Russian citizens.” Thanks to their history of good relations with the government, “the two Sergeys” (as others sometimes called them behind their backs) secured the support of Vyacheslav Volodin, who was then first deputy chief of staff in the Kremlin. Volodin gave the green light, and IID was launched, with the intent that it would consult the government on “Internet-related questions.”

A Russian IT industry insider reflects on IID’s raison d’être:

Our massive, costly state suddenly realized that within it there was a massive, costly Internet. And the content on that massive, costly Internet was being produced by everybody except the state itself.

By March 2015, the Russian president commissioned the newfangled institute to draft a 10-year program for “developing” Russia’s Internet. By fall, the policy proposal was ready. According to Roskomsvoboda, an NGO dedicated to monitoring Internet censorship in Russia, the paper turned out to be “highly ambiguous”: its talk of “cyber-borders” and “digital sovereignty” suggested a murky policy turn.

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But next, IID embarked on something innocuous: developing a series of “road maps” for integrating the Internet with various economic sectors in need of “digitization,” running the whole range from medicine, education, and finance to construction and municipal services. The institute’s operations seemed fairly chaotic to a speaker who was on IID staff at the time:

We were constantly organizing Internet+ forums, that “+” standing for medicine, trade, sports, etc. — seven or eight different directions in all. The idea was to gather a group of experts (doctors, for example) and introduce them to the field. All these activities were funded by grants from the presidential administration.

“It used to be this way,” he recalls, “we’d gather some experts, conduct another forum, but without any clear objectives or any connection to concrete data. I constantly had the nagging feeling that this was an imitation of ferocious activity, with very little practical sense in it.”

Before IID was able to transform Russia’s economy, its Kremlin patron Vyacheslav Volodin left the president’s administration, taking the speaker’s post in the State Duma. Once this happened, in 2016, the institute quickly came under criticism for inefficiency. Its funding was cut, and it had to reduce its staff from 20 to just four.

Better days, and a new feeding trough

The institute’s fortunes turned when a former Rambler & Co executive Alexey Goreslavsky joined the President’s Office, becoming the Kremlin’s main Internet point man, which brought him in contact with IID. Around 2017, on Goreslavsky’s watch, the institute began to rise as a key player in the allocation of government funding for youth content. When Goreslavsky finally left the Kremlin and “moved in” as IID’s general director in 2021, the institute metamorphosed into a full-fledged extension of the state, now commandeering multi-billion-ruble budgets geared towards selling the state’s military-patriotic agenda to the masses.

Shortly after Goreslavsky’s arrival at IID, the institute announced a “national content” contest, inviting submissions answering to themes like “heroes of our times,” “causes for pride,” “stable development for the country,” and “protecting the national interests.” On condition that the awards would go to proposals on these topics, Russia’s Reserve Fund, itself sustained by Russia’s surplus income from fossil fuels, advanced seven billion rubles for the contest. (It is, incidentally, the same Reserve Fund that the Russian government uses regularly to cover war-related expenditures.)

In this manner, IID started getting annual multi-billion-ruble infusions from the government, to fund projects “aimed at strengthening [Russia’s] civic identity and moral and spiritual values.” In 2023, the institute received more than 20 billion rubles (or close to $238 million), of which more than 17 billion (or roughly $202 million) had been allocated towards creating “pro-government content” focused on “civic identity” and “moral and spiritual values.” In the coming years, 2024 and 2025, it stands to receive another 26 billion rubles. For comparison, the state Cinematography Foundation that finances the entirety of Russia’s film industry only got 11.6 billion rubles (or around $138 million) in funding for 2023.

Under Goreslavsky’s leadership, the IID developed a reputation as a place to get easy money. In the words of the director Roman Volobuyev, Russia’s entertainment industry in recent years has looked like this:

If a hamster nibbled on a piece of cardboard and what came out ended up looking like a pitch for a TV series, the hamster would likely be able to produce it, because there was money up the wazoo in the industry. But if the hamster wasn’t smart enough to do this and still wanted to produce a TV series, he could apply for an IID grant, and get funded.

A Moscow-based screenwriter who has worked on IID-sponsored projects in the past says the entertainment market began to see middlemen who went around offering help with IID grant applications in exchange for 10 percent of the funding. “Personally, I’ve been in touch with three such characters and it was clear from the start they were talking wicked nonsense, since IID was handing out money left and right, and there was absolutely no need for any middlemen,” he says.

The way IID dispenses grants is on the condition of co-financing from other state organizations or private companies, like the government-backed scholarly organization Znanie or the National Media Group (NMG), which is affiliated with Putin’s closest friend, billionaire Yury Kovalchuk. At the same time, the selection process inside IID proved to be somewhat murky. According to an IID advisory board member who agreed to talk to Meduza and iStories on condition of anonymity, initially the grant recipient selection was going to be transparent and steer clear of insider deals. In reality, though, funded projects were chosen by people who had themselves applied for grants and received them. According to the speaker, “this was all too predictable,” due to the incestuously narrow nature of the TV industry itself.

Plots, narratives, and funding

In the closing stages of grant competition, a committee of officials and propaganda executives reviewed the finalists. The committee included Yelena Yampolskaya, chair of the State Duma Committee for Culture, well-known for her pro-war initiatives; RT CEO Margarita Simonyan (who tapped into IID funding to produce RT’s propaganda shows with Anton Krasovsky); and Sergey Novikov, head of the presidential Directorate for Social Projects and longtime associate of Sergey Kiriyenko, Vladimir Putin’s first deputy chief of staff. According to a Moscow-based screenwriter who spoke with the authors anonymously, Novikov is the Kremlin curator of Russia’s film and television industry, and it’s because of him, for example, that a gay character in Anna Yanovskaya’s TV series Roommate had to be renamed, because the writers accidentally gave him the same name and patronymic as Kiriyenko’s, “Sergey Vladilenovich.” The coincidence was promptly disapproved of, and the character became “Edgar Emmanuilovich.”

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“Conquering Moscow” was a theme that IID’s grant committee was particularly fond of. The typical plot involved some gifted mathematicians or entrepreneurs from a provincial Russian city set out to “make it” in the capital — the message being that Russia is a great country full of gifted people. “Conquering the audience,” on the other hand, was measured solely in terms of the number of online views. Former contest entrants recall that any platform could satisfy the grant committee’s projected view count criterion: it could have been VK, or even Rutube (which claimed to have an audience of 25 million in 2022, but this figure cannot be verified). A director who worked on an IID-sponsored production explained how projected view counts were tied to funding:

IID budgets an average of 1.5 rubles per expected view when funding a project. The method is to show that by such-and-such date, you’ll have so many million views. We came and said, “Guys, we have a TV series that’s going to get 2.5 million views.” So, they gave us four million rubles. Then we jacked up the numbers on VK: there’s a trick there that lets you auto-play a video and count it as a view. You just pay to place your video in all the popular groups, where it’s put on auto-play, and you get your views.

A company insider at VK points out that the platform registers a view one second into the video, in contrast to YouTube, where it takes 30 seconds before a view is counted.

To grasp how IID-funded productions typically come into being, Meduza and iStories spoke to a former employee of Afisha, a Russian arts-and-society magazine owned by Rambler & Co, a media holding where Goreslavsky worked for many years. “IID approached us before the war, as far back as maybe 2021,” says the Afisha insider. After being presented with a list of desirable topics (“patriotism, moral values, and so forth”), the editorial team settled on an idea: they would make something about the “fashionable, successful people who live and work in Russia.”

By the time work began, however, the fashionable and the successful were fleeing the country in droves. To solve the issue, the editors altered the slant: they were now going to feature people who remain in Russia despite everything. The project was then renamed into Ostavantsy, or Sticklers. “They found a bunch of fairly pleasant people, not saber-toothed or anything, and the overall idea was that it’s possible to stay in the country and do something good,” recalls the former member of the team.

The “pleasant people” included guests like the film producer Lisa Astakhova, the psychoanalyst Mikhail Sobolev, the choreographer Maxim Sevagin, the former special correspondent for Spas (an Orthodox Christian TV channel) Serafim Sashliyev, the restauranteur Alexander Sysoyev, and others. “The project was completed in the nick of time, just before the mobilization,” the speaker recalls. Once mobilization began, he says, “none of the ‘sticklers’ stuck, and the editorial team, whoever could, all left as well.”

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But Afisha’s editor-in-chief, Trifon Bebutov, stuck nevertheless.

Apart from the Sticklers, Afisha produced two more projects on IID grant money. One was Cancel Culture: Culture Cancelled, which talked about the problems of Russian culture during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The other one was Other Shores, dedicated to the centennial of the “philosopher’s ship” that took a large group of Russian intelligentsia to the West at the time of the socialist revolution. One piece of this project was Reflection, a web documentary released by Afisha in November 2022. The feature was initially conceived to draw parallels between the lives of Russia’s post-revolutionary emigration with current events. The stories of gifted Russians who went on to make major original contributions abroad — like the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, for example — were meant to be a cautionary tale of squandered human potential.

Bebutov, however, “turned this ship 180,” “because we were dealing with the IID, and they didn’t want any parallels with the present.” Instead, Bebutov proposed slanting the film in the direction of homecomings and “how great it is to come back to Russia.” When asked about potential figures to feature in the documentary (given that very few of the “philosophers’ ship” descendants ever returned), Bebutov replied, blithely, that they’d would find someone, even if unconnected to the original “philosophers’ ship.”

When asked for comment on Afisha’s IID-sponsored projects, Bebutov wrote back: “The questions are kind of strange, imho, and I’m not the right person. I’m gonna pass this time. Sorry.”

Last February, Trifon Bebutov joined IID’s grant-selection jury.

‘Clean little hands’

“When we saw it, our jaws just dropped,” says a Moscow-based journalist about the 2023 Internet content awards (instituted by IID in 2021).

The finalist shortlist was predictable. A video published by the Telegram news channel Shot, showing a girl from the Kherson region hugging a Russian soldier, saying “You are our saviors! I love you!” was nominated for “best viral video.” Another finalist in the same category was a pro-Kremlin video, “Time to Move to Russia,” inviting foreigners to flock to the country’s “cheap gas, traditional values, and beautiful women.” (After the award ceremony, it turned out that the woman featured in the video was actually a Ukrainian model.) Shaman, the lead singer of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was nominated for “best musical track” for his song “Let’s Rise.” The pro-Kremlin blogger Stas and his film about visiting the Donbas was nominated for the “debut of the year” award. Another nominee was Alexander Malkevich, a propagandist producing live streams from the “Ukrainian territories liberated from the Nazis.”

Last year’s awards were just as telling. The “best journalistic project” award went to Anton Krasovsky and his “Antonyms” TV program. (Later, Krasovsky’s calls to “burn” and “drown” Ukrainian children caused a scandal in the Russian media.) Vladimir Solovyov was honored as the “best Internet journalist to have been banned from YouTube for political reasons.” In the “truth is power” nomination, Semyon Pegov (author of the WarGonzo Telegram channel) split the prize with Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin (employed by the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda) and several other finalists. One of them, the self-styled “war correspondent” Vladlen Tatarsky, was killed in a St. Petersburg cafe 10 months after the award ceremony.

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The competition’s advisory board is headed by Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. Pegov and other so-called “war correspondents” received their awards directly from Kiriyenko’s hands. The ceremony was held in the Russian-annexed part of Ukraine’s Donbas.

Not just the military bloggers (glorified as “war correspondents”) get IID funding for their work in the annexed Ukrainian regions. In May 2022, a Donetsk-based film director named Vladimir Agranovich won the grant competition with a proposal for a documentary about the Donbas and its “homecoming” to Russia. (On the official winners list, he is represented by his sister, the pro-Kremlin blogger Katerina Agranovich.) The director’s father and uncle both fought on the side of the self-proclaimed Donetsk “republic” back in 2014, under the sobriquets “Matros” (“Seaman”) and “Vodyanoy” (“Merman”). Both had been linked to Arsen Pavlov, a field commander better known as Motorola, who had been killed in 2016. And while the “Seaman” appears to be in action still, the “Merman” was killed near Avdiivka in April 2022.

“They have multiple arms. They have tame projects on ‘correct family values,’ and they also have war-related tracks geared towards advancing the state’s interests. Everything sits side by side, in joyful cooperation,” muses an employee of a Russian streaming platform about what gets selected for IID sponsorship.

A screenwriter who has previously won an IID grant describes the selection criteria: “The IID is now encouraging applications for projects about Russia’s future, which is obviously something no one understands shit about”;

But they really want someone to formulate something positive on this account. So, the creative folks are trying to assume complicated poses and come up with projects about the radiant tomorrow that’ll grow from our luminous yesterday — all so they can take some patriotic money from IID, with their clean little hands, and not get burned in the process.

According to the same writer, not only Putin supporters and Russian residents are eligible for grants. Those who oppose his policies and the war can and do apply, even if they have left Russia because of the war and mobilization.

If filmmaking is the only thing you know how to do, and there’s plenty of your kind in, say, Tbilisi, you’ve got to make a living somehow and come up with new projects. Some make cynical movies about the ‘holy war’ — meaning the Second World War, of course, but at least it’s not the Ukraine war. Others go back to the 19th century. We came up with a project about Russian scientists,

says the speaker, explaining how his team got their grant.

Well-known directors like Fyodor Bondarchuk and Alexander Khant also apply for IID grants. Khant, who makes films about social problems, used IID grant money to make his Russia-Odissey documentary about the “heroes of our time”: forest firefighters, volunteers, and a Paralympic cyclist — figures far removed from the war.

While IID helps fill the funding vacuum left by film industry investors who withdrew from Russia, quality applicants like Khant, who turn to IID because of shrinking sponsorship options, help frame IID’s grant competition as something respectable. “If you were to leave it to [Margarita] Simonyan,” says a Moscow-based video-production worker, referring to RT’s editor-in-chief, “she would have produced a bunch of garbage; but instead, here you have propaganda in a pretty packaging.”

‘Patriotic’ connections

A few years ago, IID started collaborating with Russian streaming platforms. The makers of the first Internet series funded by the institute complained of tough deadlines. “You can’t make a series in six months, especially a good one,” said one past grant winner. Similarly, the makers of Ten Days Till Spring, who won an IID grant and started filming in March 2023, have one year to complete their feature film. The 2024 deadline is tied to the 10-year anniversary of the so-called “referendum” that preceded Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

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In the plot, Nikolay (a deputy commander of the Simferopol police squad Berkut, instrumental in the annexation of Crimea), his sister Natalia, and their brother Andrey (a surgeon with a practice in Moscow), all meet in Crimea at their father’s funeral, on the eve of the annexation. Having been separated by different life circumstances in the 1990s, they now get drawn into a feud over their family home on the Crimean seaside, while the “Crimean spring” (as the Russian side likes to call the annexation) unfolds around them.

The series’ director Kim Druzhinin has already made himself a name with films like The 28 Panfilov Fighters (based on the Soviet propaganda myth about the defense of Moscow during World War II) and his series about “informational wars,” New Russian Media. According to the IID website, Ten Days Till Spring is being made in consultation with people who took part in the annexation, and with the participation of the Russian patriotic film foundation, Voenkino, established in 2022 and subordinated to the Defense Ministry. Another collaborator is the Triiks Media production company, which specializes in “ultra-patriotic” filmmaking and has previously produced the Yevgeny Prigozhin-commissioned film Sunburn, about the events of 2014 in the Donbas, as well as Sky, a Defense Ministry-funded film about the Syrian war, and The Passion of Zoya, a Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya biopic commissioned by Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s former culture minister.

The production of military-patriotic films calls for a specialized studio. The niche has been filled by Voenfilm, a studio now headed by Igor Ushakov, a former comedian who made himself a name in the 1990s with his Channel One comedy show Oba-na! — but has since moved on towards “heroism, faith in one’s country, and being true to one’s oath.” According to Voenfilm’s website, the studio doesn’t just make historical films: “we preserve memory,” says its mission statement. Ten years ago, Ushakov managed to personally involve Putin in promoting his military blockbuster Brest Fortress. At the moment, he is working on an IID-funded World War II spy thriller about the Soviet secret services.

According to another producer who has previously collaborated with IID, the institute is less than thrilled by having to produce war-related content. “When you pitched them something like that in the past, they’d say, we don’t want to talk about war directly, our society is already tense, let’s make something uplifting instead.” The invasion, however, is changing things. When, earlier this month, IID announced a new cohort of grant winners (163 new projects standing to receive a total of 10 billion rubles, or $118.5 million), the titles spoke for themselves:

  • Ramzan: Akhmat — Russia’s Power
  • The Russian Code: A Sovereign Future
  • Russian Heritage: A Homecoming
  • Made for the Army
  • Z Women

In addition, a project titled How Are Things Over There? appears to be a facetious take on the lives of Russians who have recently left the country.

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This sampling makes it not so surprising that some of the key figures would also leave the IID. Take the media executive Vycheslav Murugov, the former deputy director of Yury Kovalchuk’s National Media Group and ex-chair of IID’s production committee overseeing TV series grants. Shortly after the start of the invasion, Murugov resigned from both NMG and IID, moving to Thailand (as confirmed by four of his acquaintances). Although Murugov himself refused to speak with the authors, a close friend of his, who asked to remain anonymous, explained his motives: “Slava left for a whole clutch of reasons, but he didn’t feel like working for this propaganda system.” Another member of his circle adds: “Murugov is a smart and cunning person. He doesn’t need sanctions for working with Kovalchuk, nor the reputation of a producer who services the regime.”

Nevertheless, Murugov is still listed as a member of the IID’s advisory board.

Ambivalent choices

It was the IID’s weakness for Soviet-era nostalgia that helped finance the documentary series Soviet Design, made by the studio Amurskiye Volny (“The Waves of Amur”). Alexander Urzhanov, the studio’s general director, says that he only learned about IID’s sponsorship at the production stage, because of the intermediary role of the Gorky Film Studio that had commissioned the series. “We didn’t know what they did with marketing or who had been the co-investor, until a certain moment.” At the production stage, Gorky Film Studio mentioned that completed footage had to be shown to the IID stakeholders, Urzhanov recalls.

Soviet Design was released in September 2021. Six months later, the war began, and several documentary makers left Russia. By then, Urzhanov himself had been living in Berlin for two years, where he now runs another documentary studio, Narra. (Narra’s documentary The White Coat, a film about the Soviet-era political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya, made in collaboration with the independent media cooperative Bereg, premiered on Meduza.)

Reflecting on his past involvement with IID, Urzhanov says:

There are things that force you to break the contract, and that’s interference with the content. With Soviet Design, this didn’t happen. IID didn’t at all meddle with our content. Of course, when you’re making a series about some Soviet chandelier, you kind of expect that someone will eventually show up and say, “A chandelier is well and good, but how about traditional values?” But no one ever came.

Rodion Chepel, who worked on Soviet Design as a producer, says it has been clear at the time that the market was changing, the IID had come to stay, and one had to work with the institute. Chepel doesn’t agree that one shouldn’t work with an agency that funds propaganda. “First of all, I can help people make a living. Second, I can make good content, content that promotes peace, because I’m a peace-loving person.” “It’s better that I take that money and produce something I don’t feel ashamed of, than if another person makes some piece of trash,” he says.

Chepel has recently applied for another IID grant, to fund a new travel series about Russian scuba divers. Two pilots, filmed on lake Baikal and on Valaam, an island on Lake Ladoga, have already been completed.

Another studio worker who decided to stay and keep working in Russia sums up the industry’s dilemma: “With the start of the war, all moral criteria got maximally twisted. But here’s the thing: there are people, there are viewers living in Russia. Are you going to do something for them? Or just tell them to ‘Sieg’ off?”

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Reportage by Svetlana Reiter (Meduza), Maria Zholobova (iStories), and Anastasia Korotkova (iStories). Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya.

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