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Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Revolutionary Dostoevsky

By Lisa J Walters, on 16 October 2017

Dr Sarah Young, Senior Lecturer in Russian

This post was first published on sarahjyoung.com

Photograph of Dostoevsky published with permission of the Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg

Photograph of Dostoevsky published with permission of the Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

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Is Russia Practicing a Dry Run for an Invasion of Belarus?

By Lisa J Walters, on 25 September 2017

Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

This piece was originally posted on foreignpolicy.com on 18 September 2017. Podcasts are available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/22/staring-down-the-barrel-of-russias-big-guns/ and on iTunes

With tensions worsening between the two countries, Russia’s massive military exercise is firing a couple thousand warning shots at a reluctant ally.

Russian T-90 tanks take position before firing in Kubinka Patriot Park outside Moscow on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the "Army 2017" International Military-Technical Forum. / AFP PHOTO / Alexander NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian T-90 tanks take position before firing in Kubinka Patriot Park outside Moscow on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the “Army 2017” International Military-Technical Forum. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia does military exercises regularly, but this year’s version, underway right now, deserves especially close attention. It’s called Zapad (“West”) and involves thousands of troops doing maneuvers on the borders of the Baltic states and Poland. The motivating scenario is to defend against an imagined invasion of Belarus by foreign-backed extremists. One of the fictional enemy states, “Vesbaria,” seems to be a thinly disguised Lithuania; the other, “Lubenia,” looks a bit like Poland. There will no doubt be the usual low-level provocations, with Russian planes buzzing borders, that will make the whole passive-aggressive show of strength look more like an invasion of the West than the other way around.

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Pot Calls the Kettle Black: Russian Report Describes the Spread of ‘Modern Technological Populism’

By Lisa J Walters, on 16 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

When it comes to political dirty tricks, you can rely on the Russians to know how to call things by their right name.  Russians also have the habit of using terminology to describe the wider world that is reflexively useful for conceptualising Russia itself. A recent Report by a new Russian think-tank on ‘Modern Technological Populism’ has therefore caused quite a stir; both because Russia has been accused of not-so-covert support for populists like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, and because the Report is the first product of an institution directly linked to the Kremlin.

The think-tank in question is the ‘Expert Institute of Social Research’ (which in Russian has the acronym EISI), founded in the autumn of 2016 and launched in March 2017. The EISI is attached to the Presidential Administration and is presumed to reflect the thinking of the new Kremlin propaganda chief, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his ‘Strategy 2030’.

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Beyond Fake News: How Trump’s Disruptive Technology Mirrors Russian Political Technology

By Lisa J Walters, on 13 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

The investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia has already uncovered many layers and levels. More will no doubt be found; but the search would be assisted by a better understanding of just what has gone on in Russia these last twenty years. Hacking may have generated the most lurid headlines, but is just one of many techniques in the arsenal of what Russians call ‘political technology’.  And the West needs to take a closer look at itself – the U.S. election was simply the most dramatic example yet of the consequences of the dangerous combination of political technology with ‘disruptive technology’.

Political Technologies (more…)

Eurovision Comes to Kyiv, Ukraine Gets Three-Quarters of the Way to Europe

By Lisa J Walters, on 17 May 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

I am in Kyiv for the Eurovision Song Contest final. All marvellous fun, though I have done some work too. Ukraine has embraced the official slogan ‘Celebrate Diversity’ with apparent ease; not least because it is the perfect symbol for the new Ukraine and its European aspirations – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-confessional and tolerant.

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How to manage geopolitical risk and understand its implications on your portfolio and regional stability: Russia and the Ukrainian Crisis

By Lisa J Walters, on 23 March 2017

By Dr Eugene Nivorozhkin, Senior Lecturer in the Economics of Central – Eastern Europe
Centre for Comparative Studies of Emerging Economies

The economic and political turbulence around Russia in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation in March 2014 is an interesting illustration of how a geopolitical event is itself necessary but not sufficient to cause significant geopolitical risk for investment portfolios.

The Ukrainian crisis prompted a number of countries and international organisations to apply sanctions against individuals, businesses and officials from Russia.  In addition to diplomatic actions, the measures included travel bans and freezing assets owned by Russian officials and friends of Putin. A broad set of measures targeted sectoral cooperation with Russia and more general economic matters. In particular, Russian state banks were excluded from raising long-term loans in international financial markets. Bans were implemented on arms deals and exports of dual-use equipment for military use. The EU/US ban included exports of selected oil industry technology and services, to name just a few.

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Russian Montparnasse: Transnational Writing in Interwar Paris

By Blog Admin, on 16 August 2016

Dr Maria Rubins, Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature

Russian Montparnasse

Transnational Writing in Interwar Paris

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

[Revised and expanded Russian translation is in print at the NLO Publishing House in Moscow.]

 

Today, the famous Montparnasse cafés have become quite upscale establishments, and it is hard to imagine that in their heyday a homeless apatride could nurse a single drink on a café terrace for the entire night. During les années folles, as the interwar period was dubbed in France, “Le Dôme,” “La Rotonde,” “La Coupôle” and other brasseries near the intersection of Boulevard Montparnasse and rue Vavin were the epicenter of transnational modernist culture. Legendary artists and writers of the time – Modigliani, Soutine, Aragon, Chagall, Man Ray, Hemingway, Picasso – all passed through Montparnasse. The star of Parisian music halls, the American dancer Josephine Baker, would sometimes arrive in a café in the company of her pet leopard. And many a painter’s muse, the model Kiki, would take a dip in a water basin at the centre of “Le Dôme” to cool down after a champagne-drinking marathon.

Barely conspicuous in the bohemian crowd, young Russian émigré writers also thrived in this cosmopolitan and provocative environment. Alienated from their homeland, marginalized in their adopted country, and feeling constrained by conservative aesthetics prescribed by the émigré literary establishment, these young men looked toward European avant-garde for inspiration. Montparnasse offered a unique site where they could interact with Western peers and observe contemporary life, where hierarchies were suspended and where all cultural, ethnic and linguistic hybrids with unstable identities and precarious legal status could get a sense of belonging and relative freedom.

 

OPL1153075 Brasserie Cafe du Dome, Paris, 1920 (b/w photo) by French Photographer, (20th century); Private Collection; French, out of copyright

OPL1153075 Brasserie Cafe du Dome, Paris, 1920 (b/w photo) by French Photographer, (20th century); Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

The Montparnasse genius loci left an indelible mark on the style, thematic repertoire and personal lives of the young Russian writers. Many pages in the works of Gaïto Gazdanov, Vasily Yanovsky, Nikolai Otsup, Serge Sharshun, Boris Poplavsky (nick-named the “Prince of the Kingdom of Montparnasse”), and others contain colorful descriptions of a café scene, where, in Elsa Triolet’s words, “amidst the cigarette smoke permanently hung a scandal”.

In this book I treat Montparnasse not just as a place of gathering or a background depicted in interwar art and fiction but as a creative locus that generated its own aesthetics and discourse. Born out of exile and existential anxiety, Montparnasse literature responded to unprecedented cataclysms that shook the world, and also reflected technological and cultural shifts of the interwar period. Arguably, the real shock of modernity occurred in the 1920-1930s. This was, by David Trotter’s definition, the first “media age,” when radio and telephone entered the homes of millions. Air travel, symbolized by Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight from New York to Le Bourget, altered conventional perception of distances, geography, and the rhythm of human existence. World wars, mass migration, flows of refugees; widely popularized scientific discoveries, including radioactivity; the rise of mass culture and commodification of artwork; the dominance of cinema and progressive visualization of culture in general; the cult of celebrity; skepticism about positivist ideas; and discrediting any rational forms of self-knowledge under the impact of Freudian theories – these were the key processes that marked a drastic break with tradition and defined the world as we know it. In the interwar period, due to new communication technologies, artistic styles, fashion, music and ideologies began to circulate rapidly around the globe. As the “cultural capital of the world,” Paris was at the nexus of these trends.

My book was initially intended as a study of the prose fiction of the younger émigrés of the first wave, but then evolved into a reflection on the spirit and legacy of transnational modernism. Montparnasse became a metaphor for the interwar cultural production across Europe, which articulated the experience of modernity. It gradually became clear to me that Russian Montparnassians could not be understood only as an extension of the Russian national tradition, but had to be read against Hesse, T.S. Eliot, Aragon, Breton, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Bataille, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other writers who best expressed the sense of civilizational collapse and the advancement of a new era. Such works Georgy Ivanov’s nihilist “The Atom Explodes,” for example, condemned as provocation in Russian émigré circles, shares an aesthetic and conceptual lexicon with modernist texts like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Breton’s Nadia. Ivanov, Yanovsky, Felzen, Bakunina, Adamovich, Poplavsky and other Montparnassians were among the first to realize that the Russian classical tradition was inadequate in the post-apocalyptic reality, and to set out to create a new language.

 

CHT253043 Cosmopolitan bohemia at Cafe La Rotonde, Montparnasse, 1924 (litho) (b/w photo) by French School, (20th century); Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France; (add.info.: La Boheme cosmopolite;); Archives Charmet; French, it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Cosmopolitan bohemia at Cafe La Rotonde, Montparnasse, 1924 by French School, (20th century); Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France. Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images.

While Russian Montparnasse literature was no less vibrant or experimental than coeval writing in other tongues, it long remained practically unknown beyond a narrow circle of Russian readers. To a much greater extent than other expatriates in interwar Paris, Russians lacked cultural networks, a vast audience in their homeland, translations and opportunities for marketing. But low visibility was also a self-fulfilling prophecy: the young writers called themselves the “unnoticed generation,” driven by the Surrealist discourse of anonymity and the myth of the “lost generation.”

Russian Montparnasse is a book about a transnational literary community that simultaneously drew upon, blurred and transcended Russian and foreign traditions and amalgamated different cultural lexicons and national narratives, anticipating more recent trends of cultural globalization. Their corpus of texts raises questions about the role in artistic expression of migration, borders, and dual identities. Today, the migrant has come to occupy a central place in arts and political discourse, prompting critics to rethink the relevance of conventional “national” affiliations for many authors and texts that thrive in the no man’s land beyond nation-states, languages and cultures – Rushdie, Nabokov, Kundera are just a few of the names that spring to mind in this regard.

I came to think of Russian Montparnasse as an early unconscious attempt to open Russian culture to a transnational dialogue, to transcend the national agenda and to reconfigure canonical values. Exile, which these writers saw as their curse, in fact allowed them to discover new directions in verbal art.

 

Further information from the Palgrave Macmillan site:

Maria Rubins

RUSSIAN MONTPARNASSE: Transnational Writing in Interwar Paris

Published by by Palgrave Macmillan in the Series “Palgrave Studies in Modern European Literature”

ISBN 9781137508027

This book is a case study in transnational modernist literature generated by exile, dislocation and cross-cultural exchanges, focusing on the younger writers of the interwar Russian Parisian diaspora, known as Russian Montparnasse. Maria Rubins argues that their hybrid, bicultural and bilingual writing transcended the Russian national master narrative, anticipating more recent diasporic tendencies. The book sets the Russian Montparnasse corpus into trans-cultural and intertextual dialogues with key Western and Russian texts to demonstrate that their artistic response to the main challenges of urban modernity and cultural rupture resonated with broader aesthetic trends in interwar Europe. By systematically reassessing the role of Russian Montparnasse in the articulation of modernism, this study expands our knowledge of the evolution of the transnational literary canon, contributes to the academic debate about national vs. transnational analytical approaches to bicultural artistic production, and challenges the conventional status of language as the chief marker of literary affiliation.

 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or SSEES Research Blog.

 

 

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Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Stalin in Manhattan

By Blog Admin, on 20 May 2016

By Dr Elisabeth Schimpfossl – Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL SSEES

Elisabeth is giving a talk on 23rd May on ‘Russia’s New Rich and Their Attitudes to The West’ at UCL as part of the UCL Festival of Culture

(Seminar room 20, Wilkins South Wing, 18.00)

During my last trip to New York I was invited to attend the annual PR event of a chic Russian-owned Manhattan antiques shop. Everything was fancy; the location in one of the trendiest streets in Upper East Side that attracts a cosmopolitan jet-set crowd, the subtly tanned maître de, a young man with a gym-honed physique complemented by the most perfect manicure possible, and the champagne-sipping ladies elegantly balancing on pencil thin heels. I chatted with the wife of the new owner, a very pleasant thirty-something, who appears genuinely natural, despite being perfectly turned out, thanks to Botox, good dentistry and professional fashion styling.

Masha was born into an engineers’ family in Novosibirsk. Her family left for Spain in the early 1990s. After graduating from an international school, Masha did an economics degree at a UK business school. She worked for her father’s company for a few years before meeting Vadim, the son of a Forbes-listed oil and gas businessman. Vadim had some of his business in Latin America, so the young couple settled in New York City. He had a longstanding passion for antiques, and the year before he finally decided to realise his dream of owning a small antiques boutique. Masha was all up for it. She loves meeting new people, the quirky antique art dealers and the international ladies of fashion whom she primarily considers her husband’s clients, and also the people from the neighbourhood, some of them proper New Yorkers, who pop by every so often for a glass or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masha and I got to talk about the Moscow metro; how it is superior to the New York subway, not least because of the resources which were put into it by some of the best engineers of the early 1930s; and how little surprising it is that this greatly helped boost Stalin’s popularity. Stalin was not only good though, Masha adds. I nod quickly, affirming to her that that was indeed very much the case. Then I learned I had not nodded to the same idea. Stalin did not go far enough, she says, with the kind of un-Russian, professional smile on her face, learned at her international school.

Yes, it was crucial to eliminate all those Trotskyists and Leninists who would have only sabotaged the Soviet Union’s leap into an industrialised future. Stalin had never been a Leninist, hence Lenin’s suspicion towards him shortly before his death in early 1924. Both Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, became very wary of Stalin. Lenin had only endured young Stalin before the First World War for successfully staging bank robberies to fill up the party’s fighting fund. At the time Lenin’s party was working underground and any source of income was highly appreciated. So obviously Stalin had to settle his accounts with Lenin, his heritage and all his living memory.

Masha went on to explain why Stalin had to liquidate other revolutionaries and their sympathisers, for example the old Bolshevik Bukharin, a fellow traveller of Lenin. Bukharin had great charisma and was very popular, but he sided with the rich peasants. No industrialisation would have gone ahead with them clinging to their old ways of production; hence Stalin had to get rid of him. He also went on to liquidate the Red Army’s high command in 1937. Masha was now quite animated and in full flow. No matter how Bolshevik Marshall Tukhachevsky and the other senior commanders perceived themselves, they had a Tsarist mind-set. They would have become a massive problem, hindering more courageous military strategies during the Second World War.

If anything, Stalin was not tough enough. This is evident in the fact that there were still massively damaging saboteurs left, such as the Red Army general Vlasov who collaborated with the Nazis after his capture in 1942. At this point Masha’s husband waved his wife over to introduce her to a new customer who was interested in a fine pair of lacquered armchairs. The antique shop staff started collecting the empty Ruinart bottles and champagne glasses. The two pieces I liked most and would have loved to buy if I was rich, a 1940s cabinet for $35K and an art nouveau coffee table for $40K, had red stickers on them to indicate that they had been sold, and I left into the fresh air of a relatively clear New York September night.

 

As cosmopolitan and sophisticated as Masha is in most aspects of her lifestyle, her expensive European schooling and university education had failed to convert her to Western-type humanistic thoughts. Patriotic thinking, including seeing Stalin as the great moderniser and overseer of the Soviet Union’s rise to global superpower, was clearly more persuasive to her. As we saw in the case of Kremlin TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, even repressions in one’s own ancestry suffered during Stalin’s terror do not necessarily outweigh the deeply conservative views that began flourishing in the Putin era, supported by nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet period, primarily associated with solid traditional family values. Stalin is associated as much with the glory of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and with the country’s economic development as he is with atrocities and terror.

 

The tendency to hold such strong convictions arises within the context of clashing historical narratives. Western education, lifestyle and permanent residence do not necessarily have great influence on this view; on the contrary, they can rather cement it: the Western schooling Russians are presented with as gospel truth could not deviate more from what they have heard from relatives, seen on Russian television and read in Russian textbooks. In the Soviet Union, the only channels for alternative versions of history were close friends and family. Patriotism – and with it nostalgia for Russia’s lost status as a superpower – is such a strong component of national identity that Western takes on history are not perceived as pluralistic views, but as a sharp knife stabbed into Russia’s heart. Western textbook writers are partly to blame. It has happened to me, not just once, that when I asked a full lecture hall of history students in England who won the Second World War, the Soviet Union was conspicuous by its absence from their list of victorious countries. Those full of pride in their culture and history (to some extent almost every Russian), if not socialised into a belief in superiority, will necessarily defiantly reject an unsubtle Western understanding of their country and society.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

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Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.
Dr Phillip Cavendish: SOVIET COLOUR FILM, 1929–1945: AN EXPERIMENT UNDERSTOOD BY VERY FEW

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.

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Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. (more…)