ON JANUARY 1, 2006, RUSSIA BECAME THE FOCUS OF WORLD ATTENTION when it briefly cut off its supply of gas to Ukraine and Europe. Although the tactic was aimed at Ukraine, it shocked the West. It demonstrated how vulnerable dependence on Russian energy had made it: the state-controlled monopoly provider Gazprom was now supplying Europe with two-thirds of its gas imports, and this was being piped through Ukraine.

Russia’s decision to turn off the tap on Ukraine in midwinter was more than a drastic negotiating tactic. It was an escalation of the power struggle which started when Ukraine went to the polls at the end of 2004. Russia and the United States were both involved behind the scenes in that bitterly fought election. The resulting Orange Revolution shifted the country’s orientation from East to West. After that, Ukraine even applied to join NATO, and started permitting NATO exercises on its territory. This was a further defiance of the agreement with Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastward.

Russia’s displeasure was not confined to Ukraine, for Georgia and Moldova had also changed their allegiance. As the year progressed, Russia increasingly reminded them how unpleasant it could make their lives. This strategy came to a head in the autumn of 2006, when Georgia’s arrest of four Russians engaged in covert operations triggered the deportation from Russia of thousands of Georgians.

Russia’s reemergence on the world stage was symbolized in the summer by Putin’s chairmanship of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Putin was riding an economy which was growing at over 6 percent a year. A poll in July showed that 86 percent of the electorate supported Putin’s leadership. The streets were no longer run by gangs; the oligarchs had been brought to heel, and a fifth of the population was now said to belong to the middle class. The president had not merely restored order; he had restored Russia’s self-respect.

But this achievement came at a price: in August, the takeover of the newspaper Kommersant by a subsidiary of Gazprom removed one of the last two independent voices in the press. This was followed in October by the contract killing of Anna Politkovskaya, critic of Putin and tireless chronicler of Russia’s behavior in Chechnya. The last remaining independent paper, Novaya Gazeta, had lost its star journalist. Her death provoked worldwide protest, but little in Russia itself.

Meanwhile, unconstrained by the checks and balances of a free press, effective opposition, and independent judiciary, corruption was spiraling out of control. No part of the edifice of state power, from top to bottom, was unaffected.

Over all this Putin reigned supreme. The end of his second term in office was drawing to a close. Thanks primarily to the rise in energy prices, but also to his prudent handling of the economy, GDP had increased sixfold since his accession, and poverty had been halved. According to the constitution, he was due to leave office in the spring of 2008. Would he do so? The pundits thought it unlikely.



Eight years had passed since Ira and Sasha lost their money during the financial crash. Sasha, who borrowed money to buy a regional television station, was still weighed down by colossal debts. Though the couple remained stoical, Sasha’s handsome, ravaged face told its own story. Harassed by creditors, he was plagued by insomnia and his heart was giving him trouble. “In his place I’d have topped myself long ago,” one friend confided. Well-wishers urged him to declare himself bankrupt, but Sasha was determined to honor his debts.

The icons hanging in every corner of their flat indicated the deep change in their life. Their year now revolved around the rigorous calendar of Orthodox feasts and fasts, major and minor.

Their politics had changed, too: “The liberals would hate me for saying this, but we’re very pro-Putin,” Ira announced a shade defiantly. “He’s given Russia back her self-respect. The intellectuals are always going on about the constraints on our freedom of speech—but whenever you turn on the television there they are, protesting about Putin’s authoritarianism! I’m fed up with them—you never hear them saying they’re grateful for anything.”

The documentaries they made were nothing like the standard fare of soap opera and celebrity concerts which dominated Russian television now. Made on tiny budgets, the weekly series More than Love told stories of ordinary people with inspiring lives: a woman who had chosen to redeem a brutal murderer through her love; a simple couple who adopted the unwanted children in their district. “We want to increase the amount of happiness in the world,” Sasha declared, smiling beatifically.

For all the pressures on them, they adored one another, and their work. “The crash was the best thing that could have happened to us,” Ira insisted, refusing my presents. “We’re really not interested in things anymore.” When we first met, Ira was a talented writer and filmmaker with an acerbic wit, but she was not happy. Though she was a dutiful wife, it was clear she was acting a part. “You’re right,” she sighed: “I wasn’t born good. It’s been the great labor of my life.” When communism broke down, so did Ira’s marriage. Only when she met Sasha did things fall into place for her.

It was a sunny Saturday, and the three of us were heading for the country. Ira, who had only just learned to drive, rode the car as if hoping it might take off like Pegasus. Speeding along Moscow’s new raised motorway in the sunshine, we almost did seem to be flying over the capital. Gleaming mirrored skyscrapers were flashing by on either side; tall blue and yellow cranes showed where more blocks were going up. The dingy old Soviet city center had become a celebration of capitalism.

Our trip was prompted by a conversation with Sasha the other night. He mentioned an ecological settlement some city people were building near where the couple spent their weekends. It was one of a whole lot of such eco-settlements that were springing up all over Russia, he said. They were inspired by these books about a woman called Anastasia.

“Books?” I interrupted. “What sort of books?”

Anastasia was not a common name in Russia. I knew where I had last heard it.

“Well, they’re fairy tales really. But the ideas behind them are rather sympathetic. Very ecological.”

“You mean Anastasia’s not real?”

“Well, she’s supposed to be. This man meets a gorgeous blonde who lives in the forest, and is fed by wild animals …”

“Where are these stories set?”

“In Siberia.”

Was it possible? The woman Natasha told me about, who lived in the forest because she loved listening to the cedars singing … her name was Anastasia.

When Sasha gave me one of the books to read I saw that it was part of a whole cycle entitled The Ringing Cedars of Russia. There was a voluptuous blonde on the cover, rearing her head against a wild sky. It told the story of a trader who, while peddling goods to outlying villages in Siberia, meets a nymph of the woods and they have a romance. She proceeds to bear him a son, and in the course of many volumes, initiates him into her magical vision of life.

The first book came out in 1996, the year before Natasha mentioned the singing cedars to me. Ostensibly, it described events that took place the year I visited the Old Believers. There was a good deal about the extraordinary powers of the Siberian cedar, too. According to “Anastasia,” the trees only “rang” when they reached old age, and when they did they had extraordinary curative powers. I had to laugh. There I was, still spellbound by the memory of that music in the forest, only to learn that it had been co-opted into some fairy tale in dubious taste.

Sasha and I looked up the Web site. The author looked a bluff sea captain, with a handlebar mustache. Whoever he was, he was certainly a canny operator: the books had sold ten million copies, been translated into twenty languages, and inspired some two hundred eco-settlements. Sasha got in touch with the friend who told him about the one nearby: perhaps he could introduce us to someone there? I’ll do better than that, the friend replied: “I’ll introduce her to Anastasia herself.”

We were well out of Moscow when Ira veered off the country road and pulled up at a tiny, raspberry-pink chapel with a gleaming dome. The chapel had been built, or rebuilt, at the site of the holy spring attached to St. David’s Monastery. The old chapel had been destroyed by the Soviets. However, all through that period people kept coming, traveling long distances to visit the holy site.

Today the place was teeming with people. Two wooden huts had been built over the broad stream flowing from the spring. Outside both stood long queues, one of men, one of women, among them young brides in white dresses who would once have been posing in front of a Soviet war memorial. When our turn came, Ira and I entered the darkened hut and stripped off, together with women young and old, before immersing ourselves in the icy pool of sacred water.

On the outskirts of Serpukhov, we drew up at a low building bearing a sign that read Ecological Restoration Services. The field behind was sown, rather messily, with flowers and vegetables, studded with greenhouses and odd buildings. While Ira parked, four women appeared, one from each building, as if in a ballet by Pina Bausch. Of different ages, all beautiful, they walked toward us with their backs straight and their heads high.

At the bottom of the field Sasha’s friend Alexander Vygovsky was wrestling to heave a tall concrete fencepost into place with the help of a tractor. In his fifties, he was deep-chested, with a grizzled beard and sardonic glint in his eye. “So you’ve met the harem?” he said with a grin. There was nothing remotely harem-like about the four women, who were scrutinizing me with an astringent air. The first to join Vygovsky was the group’s lawyer, a woman with long fair hair and sad green eyes. Her daughter was now the group’s garden designer. The other two, dark-haired, amused, were the plantswomen. They ran a consultancy which dealt with everything concerned with landownership, from the byzantine legal difficulties of acquiring it, to the design and planting of gardens.

“It’s not quite what we came out here to do—” one of the women began before Vygovsky interrupted: “Russia’s facing a disaster. We’ve got one billion 709 million hectares of land, but right through the Soviet years we were plowing up virgin land at a rate of ten million hectares a year. There’s only 140 million of virgin forest left. Now most of that land’s been abandoned, since the collective farms collapsed. People imagine it just reverts to its natural state. But it doesn’t. It becomes a wasteland. It has to be reclaimed. That’s what we’re doing.”

Vygovsky came out here with grand plans. He and his communards were going to buy a huge tract of land, cleanse it of chemicals, and farm it organically. Then the local authorities started putting obstacles in their way. It emerged that though the land was notionally for sale, it had been acquired by shadowy interests, along with most of the land worth working around here. They only managed to get their hands on this small field because, as it was littered with derelict outhouses, nobody wanted it. The green-eyed lawyer sighed: “How I loathe Russia. I wish I could leave and never come back.”

“Come on, let’s go for a swim,” Vygovsky suggested after a pause. “Then I’ll introduce you to Anastasia.” As he drove the jeep along dust tracks between wide fields he pointed out tarpaulins along the side of the field, under which whole central Asian families were sheltering. After the fall of communism, when the collective farms collapsed and their workforce left for the city, Korean businessmen somehow got their hands on this land, and they now employed these migrants to work the fields for them.

Back at the commune the gates were opened by a stolid woman with a blonde plait and a thin man with a mouth like a letter box. “Susan—let me introduce you. This is Anastasia,” Vygovsky said solemnly. “Go ahead—ask her what you like.” The woman blushed scarlet. I looked at the deadpan Vygovsky and laughed.

It was a good joke, but it never quite got off the ground. Vygovsky was expecting me to be an American journalist, which in his book meant very naive. I would have to have been, for the young woman, a rather earnest Russian German, was comically miscast for the role of magical wood nymph. She did know a lot about the Anastasia settlement, though, as she and her husband had joined it. They were expelled for reasons which clearly had something do with Vygovsky.

•  •  •

“The whole thing’s a scam,” Vygovsky fulminated. “A ‘brand,’ a way of making money! Megre’s not the real author—he’s just a businessman. The FSB’s behind it. It couldn’t have happened without support high up—they actually tell their people to vote for Putin! They’ve made a fortune out of the books, and from selling those bits of cedar. Then there’s the cedar oil, so called—I’ve had it tested, it’s ordinary oil with a few drops of cedar added. And when they join the settlement they have to put a thousand dollars into the cause …”

On and on he went. Originally he had been enthusiastic about the settlements, according to Sasha. So when had he changed his mind? And was what he was saying true? He was, as he was telling me in the jeep, something of a Scheherazade when it came to stories. In Soviet labor camp—to which he was consigned for starting an ecological movement—he had survived by telling stories: first he told his inmates every one he had ever read; then he started making them up …

“They’re trying to provoke this sort of pioneer movement—to recolonize Russia! But the cretins who join up know nothing about the countryside. They sell their flats, buy these animals—they don’t even know how to look after them! Even those who do get their act together realize pretty soon that they haven’t got a chance of living off the land. Not off one hectare, which is the myth they’ve been sold! It’s just not possible! Ecological communes haven’t ever been able to get by without outside help—look at Vissarion’s lot, look at your Owenites, Susan—they’re all the same. And in the case of Anastasia’s, they’ll find that the land they’ve bought actually belongs to some absentee Chechen …”

Vygovsky had worked himself up into a passion. It almost sounded as if the man were jealous. As his diatribe moved onward, outward, the dividing line between fact and fantasy vanished: the conspiracy was not limited to the Anastasia books; it was the whole corrupt corporate system that was bleeding Russia dry. The English started it, of course, when America was Britain’s colony. Now Blair was America’s puppy. Russia had been sold downriver—they bought Putin when he was working for the KGB in Germany. The Jews were behind it. The system was rotten from top to bottom. He had friends high up in the apparat—they knew what was going on, but the system was too strong for them.

The four women were looking on with Buddhist detachment. It was impossible to tell what they made of this rant. “What’s going on is the destruction of the ethnos, the Russian people. Where are the Real Russians, the ones with conscience? They’ve been systematically destroyed—look at what they did to the Serbs! The Belorussians are the only ones who are still holding out—Lukashenko’s a hero! But if Jews like you had their way …” For lack of any available Jews, this jibe was addressed to the very Nordic Sasha.

Finally, to puncture this engulfing conspiratorial ectoplasm, Sasha interrupted: “Tell them what Max is doing,” he said to me. My son was building community radio stations in Africa, Latin America, and Palestine, I told them. Vygorsky dismissed my son as an agent of the system, of course. That did it: he was quite entitled to his stale, paranoid opinions, I retorted. He could rant to his heart’s content, but not pronounce on the activities of a young man he knew nothing about, one who did more than produce hot air like Vygovsky …

“Oh dear, now I’ve offended the English woman.” Vygovsky was contrite. “I was only joking.”

•  •  •

Back in Moscow, reading Vygovsky’s essays, I felt more sympathetic to him. They were all about the importance of restoring the “dead” tracts of Russia’s countryside. Vygovsky was knowledgeable, a serious ecologist, but the essays made ponderous reading, bristling with footnotes and statistics. However, this scholarship did not quite conceal the fact that the underlying ideas were strikingly similar to many of those in the best-selling Anastasia books.

These were familiar from my visit to the guru of Cosmism, Professor Kaznacheev, he of the magical cylinder. The professor maintained that, for better or worse, living matter, the biosphere, was going through a crucial transition, becoming dominated by the noosphere, the layer of human thinking and belief that girdled the earth.

No wonder Vygovsky was angry. As an ecologist, he believed that his contribution in this age of the noosphere was a vitally important one. But he was up against the blockbuster version of Cosmism, aimed at a mass audience. The Anastasia books told the story of a gigantic intergalactic battle between the forces of good and evil, one which was reaching its decisive climax. Anastasia initiates her businessman-lover into the wildest reading of man’s lost magical powers, from long-distance viewing to direct communication with the divine; from astral travel to man’s colonization of outer space … How could Vygovsky compete with that?


Anna and I sat in the sparkling new premises of a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor in central Saratov, sipping cocktails from long-stemmed glasses. Outside, the gold stars on the chapel’s turquoise onion dome gleamed in the morning sun and the sound of ascending arpeggios reached us from the turreted conservatoire beyond.

Last time we met I feared Anna was losing the battle against despair. But today she looked festive in a flowered summer frock, and her eyes sparkled with amused intelligence. I had often worried about her being lonely, but now I was celebrating her independence. For well over a decade the population had been shrinking at the rate of more than six hundred thousand a year, and Russia’s men were the core of the problem. They were dying of alcohol and drugs, committing suicide, crashing their cars, falling victim to the careless violence of a society which put as little value on the individual as ever. While Anna had to chronicle the effects of this in her journalism, at the end of the day she was free to go back home and write. Yes, she was writing poetry again.

Anna’s career had also taken an unexpected leap forward: she was working for the Saratov edition of a racy, muckraking, and extremely successful national paper, The People’s Pravda. The pressure on her to sharpen up her journalistic style had done her good. She now earned three times as much as a senior surgeon, a museum curator, or a teacher.

“Well, what do you make of Saratov?” she asked. I gulped my martini, playing for time. Saratov had defied my attempts to grow fond of it. Yes, the chapel outside had been restored; some bank had done up a Jungendstil building; a few new housing blocks had gone up, and a glass-fronted shopping mall. But the faces in the street looked miserable, and everything that was derelict two years ago was far more so now. The streets were pockmarked with holes, stinking hills of rubbish baked in the sun—the garbagemen, unpaid for a month, having gone on strike.

“I’m sorry, Anna, but it’s worse than ever …”

She sighed: “Yes—there really is something rotten about it! I can’t stand it. The business of living here, just living, is too hard. Everyone’s exhausted. I’d love to leave, to move up north, somewhere like Vologda.”

“Why don’t you?”

“My parents. They’re old. Three hours on the bus from here.” She fell silent, before adding: “Putting up with things, learning not to notice, not to mind. That’s the life skill you need to develop here.”

Over the next few days, leafing through back copies of the paper, I started to see what she meant. When Putin came to power, the budget per person in Saratov province was more or less on a par with the country as a whole. Five years later it was little more than half the national average, despite the fact that the country’s economy had been growing year on year. In neighboring provinces, investment had increased between two and forty times, but here in the province between four and five times less was being invested than a year ago. Official corruption had become so bad that the big taxpayers had decamped over regional borders. The province was a black hole for public money. The region’s ombudsman had received more complaints about this province than any other in Russia.

What about Putin’s reforms, I asked Anna. “Reforms?” she snorted. “Nothing’s changed here—they’ve just got worse. Well, I can’t say nothing’s changed—they did force Ayatskov out in the end.” The fabulously corrupt official Anna vowed to unmask in her passionara days had gone on to become the province’s governor. As long as he remained in the job, he enjoyed immunity from the law. Even now, he seemed to have cut a deal which protected him and his closest allies from prosecution.

A recent spate of arrests among top officials offered a spark of hope, however. Anna’s chronicles of official greed, in her capacity as the paper’s legal correspondent, were leavened by flashes of Gogolian farce. There was the city’s ex-mayor who buried diamonds and silver spoons in his garden; the ex-minister of roads, imprisoned on seventeen charges of stealing staggering sums from his budget. First he beat up a cellmate for smoking. Next, he complained that prison guards had shaved his head against his will and beaten him up. Then, after writing a formal complaint he proceeded to eat—yes, eat—his testimony. Now he was claiming that the incredible sums he stole were not for him, but for key members of Putin’s government, one of whom masterminded Putin’s presidential election …

The present governor was an honest technocrat. But how could he turn this soup of corruption into a viable administration? Months after the arrests of those top officials, many of their jobs were still unfilled. As the province drifted, rudderless, some businessmen were feeling nostalgic for Ayatskov, who at least “made things happen.”

Meanwhile corruption kept eating its way through businesses and bureaucracies, police stations, tax offices, colleges, and hospitals. I had come up against a tragic consequence of this among my own friends. When I arrived, I tried to track down the two sons of Vera Romanenko, my friend who had joined Vissarion’s community. After we had drawn a blank, Anna suddenly said: “Hey, Romanenko—that’s not a common name. Was one of them called Dmitry?”

That was how I learned about the murder of Vera’s older son: a gifted goldsmith and painter, he was attacked one night by a gang of drunken law students, celebrating their final exams. “Law students?” Well, not real ones, she explained. They were thugs whose families bribed their way through college. It was common practice: while the straight students sat writing their exams under strict invigilation, next door a lecturer would be dictating answers to the corrupt group …

“The corruption’s immeasurably worse than it was under communism. Then, people at least knew they were doing something wrong. Now they seem oblivious. I’ll give you an example: there’s a young detective who was sent to prison for taking an enormous bribe. I wrote the case up. When he came out he got a job as a journalist. Well, I was looking for a job, and this paper called Reporter offered me a place. “There’s someone on your staff who wouldn’t want me around,” I warned the editor. “Nonsense! He’d be delighted!” he replied. And it was true! He didn’t seem to have the faintest idea that he’d done anything wrong! That’s the trouble—we’ve lost our moral bearings.

“How can you change things? I don’t know. I was born in our local hospital, deep in the country. My father carried me home proudly in his arms. He had to cross this river over a bridge which was only two planks wide. The river was in full spate. On the other side the two grandmothers stood watching, praying he wouldn’t fall in. Since then Khrushchev has come and gone. So have Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. Now we’ve got Putin. But when I was back for my birthday this spring there it was—the same two-plank bridge. What kind of leader’s it going to take to broaden that bridge by just one plank, I found myself wondering!”


Anna now lived high up in a tower block on the summit of the “yellow hills” of Saratov’s Tatar name. It perched like a gull’s nest in a cliff. Factories and housing blocks stretched over the hillside opposite. But way below tall poplars swayed in the breeze. Swifts screeched softly as they swooped past the window.

It was Sunday morning, and Anna had gone to church. “So you’ve made your peace with Orthodoxy, then?” I asked as she changed into a modest skirt. Last time we met she was agonizing between the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy. “Well, there are things I still hate about it,” she replied in her categorical way. “I wouldn’t suggest someone in real trouble turned to our Church—it’s incapable of helping anyone. They’d stand there, unable to understand a word, while the priest chanted in that weird monotone. The services are interminable. And I can’t bear all that standing either. That stuff about having to wear something on my head, about not wearing trousers … Huh!

“But Catholicism—well … in the end I liked everything about it except what’s at the heart of it. I was so fond of the nuns and Father Michael—the way they were with one another, the way they lived their lives. It was just the concept of Christ I couldn’t take—this business about him being half man, half God …” She pulled a face. “I can’t explain it, though goodness knows I’ve read enough about it.”

Beside me on the window sill, Anna’s hamster, Anfissa, was whirling around on the wheel in her cage. With Anfissa and her black cat, Lucy, Anna was tender and intimate. As a prominent journalist, her public manner was confident now. But without that professional armor, she still found intimacy hard.

How painful that break with Father Michael and the nuns must have been, I reflected. Her reason was almost the same as that which precipitated the schism in Christianity in 1054. The Western Church proposed a slight change to the Creed. They wanted it to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded not just from the Father but from the Son, too. The traditionalists of the Eastern Church objected that the Latins were trying to make the Trinity too comprehensible, too rational: the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost was a mystery, and so it should remain. Ten centuries later, Western Europeans like me were still itching to understand, to bring reason into it, to keep changing things. At the start of my travels, Anna and I both hoped naively that the fall of communism would change something in Russia. In retrospect, of course, liberal democracy never stood a chance.

The night before, the heat wave that gripped Saratov broke. Now, even wearing all my summer clothes at once, I was still cold. I paced up and down the flat, trying to keep warm. Once again Anna had left her diary out on the table. This time I did not even hesitate.

“This morning when I woke up I watched the light come up and saw what it was that stopped us living in the light. But now I feel ill and tired. Very tired. My nerves are shot. I can’t just comfort myself by saying, ‘You mustn’t. Going through all that again is meaningless.’ I’m tired and I long to go back to the church which has got so many warm associations for me.” She must mean the community of nuns in Saratov’s Catholic church.

“I’ve got to go on, make good my choice, embrace the cross. Though I find myself thinking: I’m too vulnerable psychologically, there are so many things I can’t bear—loud music, for example, crowds, the company of people who make me feel uncomfortable … Still I’ve got to do it, do what I can. First, I’ve got to stop complaining, blaming God. For the fact that ‘we live in a country like this’ and all that. Be happy that you can bring at least a little light into this darkness. How little, alas! So little that I can’t even seem to see it myself.

“Once, a long time ago, that silly little S*** W*** [my italics] wrote to me: ‘You’re like a nun who lives in the world.’ I found it funny then—I didn’t like it. It didn’t seem to fit me at all … What’s important is bearing the cross. In its totality. And that I’m absolutely not capable of. My unworthiness starts right here—with my whining, my inner struggle. I measure my whole life by how good or bad I feel. My flat, my pay, blows of fate, relationships with those around me. Yes, we feel defenseless when we’re children. But we grow up. We have to decide how to relate to the world around us, to everything that happens to us. How to live, how to be. And that decision has to be radical, whole, focused. People like that can be positive, or negative. There was Serafim of Sarov and there was Lenin! But the principle’s the same—wholeness, radicalism.

“Great joy saves people. Deep spiritual truth. It’s that, not the outward kind of jollity, that attracts and saves people. Outwardly a person may be cheerful, but you can tell they’re feeling bad inside. That kind of jollity is often noisy, exhausting, importunate, extrovert …

“A complex which grows worse with the years: I’m going to have to go on working—think how ridiculous I’ll be, this babushka running around with her notebook. But what matters is how to work. If you do serious, principled work, rather than just earning your bread and butter, it doesn’t matter one bit if you’re a babushka …

“Very tired physically. Keep falling asleep. But I can still feel and see. There are some places, zones, that are alive and others that are burned-out, trampled, dead. Special feeling for the places that are alive—I’m drawn to them. But I’m tired. Horror, shame for the past, makes everything painful. It’s hot and the brief showers of rain bring no respite.”

I closed the diary, stunned. There it was, the raw matter of Anna’s daily struggle with despair, and the measure of her achievement. I once thought Anna might be a depressive. No, her despair was a rational response to the rottenness around her. Never once had she complained to me. But her days were spent chronicling the corruption of this city, the bottomless greed of its high officials at the expense of the powerless. If she was holding her own now, it was thanks to her faith. When I arrived and found her so buoyant, I thought perhaps she had found happiness. But no, she had just become more resilient. At what a cost.

Later, I found out more about Serafim of Sarov, whom she mentioned in her diary. An engaging character, he became a monk at the time of the French Revolution. After living on his own in a hut for twenty-five years, he came out into the world. He was credited with all sorts of miracles, including levitation and the gift of prophecy. But it was my guess that what appealed to Anna was the fact that Serafim was a mystic of a particular kind: he believed that anyone could reach the kind of mystical experience which was the ultimate reward of the contemplative’s prayer.

The town of Sarov, where Serafim spent his life as a monk, has acquired another more sinister claim to fame. It lay farther up the Volga from Saratov, by Arzamas-16, the secret military research base where the world’s first hydrogen bomb was hatched. Andrei Sakharov worked there, among many other top Soviet scientists. So secret was their research then, and perhaps now, too, that the scientists were not even allowed to talk to one another about it.

In 2003, Putin was among those who went there to celebrate the centenary of Serafim’s canonization. He now enjoyed a close relationship with the Church. Many Russians found this reassuring, though I am not sure why. The Church and the old KGB enjoyed the closest of relationships during the Soviet period, and that had not changed. The saint and Arzamas-16 were the icon and the axe, two faces of power. That remained the trouble with institutionalized belief, and not just in Russia.


The communal taxi was jolting downhill from Saratov’s industrial heights toward the old port. Misha and Tatiana had just flown in from their family holiday in Turkey, and I was going to stay with them.

Anna and I had been through a tricky couple of days, and I felt bad about leaving. First, there was the argument about Chechnya. Anna must have been reading about negotiations between the Spanish government and ETA over independence for the Basque region, as she suddenly burst out: “Why are they negotiating with terrorists? This’ll sound terrible to the liberals and democrats, but you’ve got to stand firm! They’re always saying Yeltsin shouldn’t have started the second Chechen war—but we had to fight it, or Russia would’ve fallen apart!”

“But Anna …”

“When Yeltsin pulled out in ’96 it didn’t end the war!” she steamed on.

“But it ended the fighting, which …”

“Let me tell you this story.” It was about a little girl from Saratov, daughter of a businessman, who was kidnapped and taken to Chechnya: “They started sending her fingers home one by one …”

“This is no way to discuss the rights and wrongs of a war.”

Anna was not to be stopped: “It was wrong to withdraw in ’96. Like a doctor who fights to save a patient, then gives up and says ‘You’re cured!’ when he knows the patient’s getting worse!”

“Don’t be absurd! You should be learning from the Spanish—that’s what we did with the IRA over Northern Ireland, too. Things aren’t brilliant there, but the war’s over and the economy’s growing.”

Suddenly Anna was listening. “But you can’t sit down with terrorists!” she concluded lamely.

•  •  •

The exchange left us both slightly shaken. It was a shock to hear that Anna wanted to disassociate herself so firmly from the “liberals and democrats.” I hoped she had been saying this to me “for the record,” but it was a faint hope. Her friends told me she had become obsessively cautious as a journalist since Putin came to power. The particular trigger was the case that had been hanging over her since we last met. On the basis of a press release, she had written an article about weapons the police found in the garage of a Chechen living in Marx. The newspaper had destroyed the press release, and the police department which issued it had been reorganized and disposed of its records. So the man won his case. The paper was fined, and no one blamed Anna. But the incident had left her badly frightened: she had developed a mania for writing and rewriting, checking and rechecking every article, they said.

The following day, a public holiday, the familiar Saratov gloom descended on me. Longing to get out of Anna’s dreary flat, I suggested we go to see the pilgrimage: some three hundred thousand pilgrims had started flooding into Saratov to see one of John the Baptist’s fingers from some Serbian monastery which was doing the rounds of provincial cities. The notion of this ex-fortress of communism in the grip of religious fervor fascinated me. But Anna was categorical: it would be dangerous. “Anyway, I hatecrowds.” Too late, I realized my tactlessness: a couple of days ago a friend of hers had been run over and killed by a bus full of pilgrims.

“Well, let’s think of somewhere else to go.”

“There is nowhere to go.” She shot me a withering look. So for the second day running we were stuck in Anna’s flat. When I offered to help her with her English by recording something, she said brusquely when handing me the tape: “Tell me about your family.”

I considered this as I looked out of the window, over the dancing heads of the poplars: Anna knew my husband was recovering from a serious illness, yet she had never even asked how he was.

“Sorry. I don’t feel like it,” I said.


“You’re not really interested.”


When I explained, she burst into tears. For the rest of the day she did little but weep, on and off. I felt terrible. My mistake was to take Anna’s new resilience at face value. Drawn back momentarily into my own family crisis, I forgot how fragile Anna’s equilibrium was. She was a formidably strong woman. But she suffered from the vulnerability of a person determined to remain true in a society where everything around her was crooked. I had no idea how to mend what I had broken.

I arrived at Misha and Tatiana’s in time to watch France playing Portugal in the semifinals of the World Cup. This was a big occasion for Misha, now chairman of the soccer club in Marx. In his mid-forties now, and brown from his holiday, his boyish good looks had hardened to a glint of steel. For Misha the French team played a beautiful game, but the Portuguese—pah! Each time a Portuguese player fell over, accusing a French player of foul play, Misha roared with indignation. Portugal’s narrow victory left him inconsolable: it was the last straw, this most public triumph of the sly ones who snatched victory from the honest men by bending the rules!

Foul play was very much on his mind. The factory had twice as many storage silos as on my last visit; it was producing nearly three times as much virgin sunflower oil and they were farming ten thousand hectares of land, too. Sales had spread beyond the Volga provinces, into the Urals. “That’s the problem,” Misha told me over breakfast next morning. “Here, once you’ve grown large enough, you start attracting attention—and it’s the wrong kind.”

Every year it was proving harder for the business to hold its own against the big manufacturers. Solntse was competing against farmers in the black earth region of southern Russia, where the same amount of land harvested twice the crop. “The only way to stay ahead of the game is technology and know-how,” Misha explained. “Farmers here are deeply conservative—when I came back from Germany last year, full of ideas, my people were horrified. My manager couldn’t bear it—walked off the job.”

Viktor Goldantsev, the ex-boss of Murmansk’s nuclear power station, would not have done that. But since my last visit Misha had lost the farm manager who shared his dream of modernizing Russian agriculture. Viktor died in a car crash, swelling the hideous statistic of untimely deaths among Russian men. His photograph hung over Misha’s desk.

The loss had left Misha no less determined: “The Germans may think it’s going to take twenty years for us to catch up, but I haven’t got that long. Here, farmers still leave the earth fallow for a year. European farmers have given that up—good farming land’s at too much of a premium. Last year we tried working it like that for the first time. But it’s expensive—you’ve got to keep the soil well fertilized, as well as using pesticide.”

I asked him whether business had become easier since those chaotic early days. “Oh—don’t start me, we’ll be here all day! It’s hugely more difficult. The corruption’s all in the state now, which means it’s much more dangerous.” A neighboring farmer had taken out a criminal case against him. The farmers of the region acted as middlemen for one another, selling on seeds and new technology. Last year Misha bought seed and sold it on. Everyone seemed pleased—except one farmer, who did not pay, complaining that the yield was less than he expected. “He blames me! In fact he’s just lazy!” Misha took him to court for nonpayment, and won. Now the man was accusing him of fraud. In normal courts, there would be no case to answer, for Misha had sold the seed on in sealed packets. “But this is Russia—the man’s got close ties with the local police. Maybe he’s just out to squeeze money out of me, but maybe someone’s out to get me! There’s no knowing!

“When Putin came to power everyone was longing for political stability. Now they’ve got it. But it’s not the kind of stability business needs! What happened to Khodorkovsky could happen to any of us. Any day. Yes, of course there was a political dimension in his case. But it’s true all the same—they can pick us off any day they want.” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, richest of the oligarchs, started using his money in the interests of democratizing Russia. The tax police charged his oil company, Yukos, with owing billions of rubles in back tax. The company was broken up, and its assets redistributed among Putin’s people. He was in prison in Siberia, in solitary confinement.

Had the new 13 percent flat-rate tax Putin had introduced not made things easier, I wondered? “In theory. But in practice the tax inspectors are bent and their powers unlimited. Take this business hanging over me—those inspectors could move into my office tomorrow and kill the business stone dead. If they’re out to nail me, they’ll find something to pin on me. I used to love doing business. But I’ve had enough. The trouble is if you get off the treadmill for a second it all comes to a grinding halt.”

I did not envy Misha. But what he was saying left me hopeful. While journalists like Anna had no power now, businessmen were surely different. At some stage, people like him, whom Russia needed to encourage if the economy was ever to escape its dependence on oil and gas, must become a force the state had to reckon with.

•  •  •

Before I left on the evening sleeper, Tatiana and I slipped off to walk in our favorite park, planted on the English model by an Anglophile governor in the nineteenth century. The cold snap had passed and the sun was shining again. The paths threading through the dark oak trees were thronged with people. The swans on the glassy lake were imperturbable. A rash of smart new tower blocks now hemmed the park in along one side; there were rumors, Tatiana said, that the developer had bribed the authorities and the next lot of blocks were going to invade the park.

Business at the café was brisk. As we waited for our Siberian beer and sushi I asked after Misha’s mother, whom I had not seen as she was living in the family’s house in Marx. “Well, she’s better off there,” Tatiana sighed. “Misha’s working around the corner, and he drops around. She’s got someone looking after her. And she can putter around the garden. But she’s not happy. How could she be? All her life she’s done nothing but work, and now there she is—blind, with nothing left to do.”

I looked over the table at Tatiana. Over the years, this pale northern beauty had grown into a snow queen, full-lipped and sensual. So what about her? She rarely talked about herself. Yet what I saw in her gray eyes struck me to the heart.

Over breakfast, I was looking through her family photographs. There was a faded snap of Misha on the day they met. He was just a boy, blond and wiry, with a cheeky grin. “He doesn’t like himself,” she whispered now, as if carrying on an earlier conversation. “That’s what drives him. He’s got to outwit the lot of them. When he was young, it just made him a wonderful sportsman. But now if he’s not working he’s planning his next move. It’s got so bad he can’t relax. If we go out somewhere with friends he says he feels out of place. And if I look as if I’m enjoying myself he says, ‘There, you see, you don’t need me.’ ”

Recently, she admitted that she was sorry not to have developed the gift of healing which her grandmother wanted to pass down to her. But without being aware of it, she had done so. Of all those who befriended me in Marx, Tatiana, once the shyest, had become the hub of the wheel. Throughout that strange, upside-down time in Russia’s history, she alone never lost her sense of balance. Perhaps it would have been easier for her if she had. Each of my other friends reacted to the fall of communism by going crazy in their own way. Each faced the task of reinventing themselves, as well as having to survive the suicide buried in their family. Tatiana just became more like herself with the years. Only now she carried the curse of memory, the unspeakable weight of the past.


About Anna, Tatiana was reassuring: “Don’t worry—next time you see her she’ll have put herself back together again.” When we met up at the Moscow sleeper, it seemed Tatiana was right. While I read on my top bunk, Anna was chatting to the couple with whom we were sharing a compartment. They were gossiping about Ayatskov, the corrupt ex-governor of the province who still proved immune from prosecution.

“So what’s he doing now?” asked the husband.

“Sitting in his palatial house, twiddling his thumbs,” replied Anna.

I listened with pleasure as she entertained our fellow passengers with gossip about Saratov personalities. Her professional persona was confident and relaxed.

When we reached Moscow Anna would be traveling on to the northern city of Novgorod. Her summer holidays were now spent exploring Russia’s ancient heartland. In the sleepy charm of towns like Vologda she had found a Russia she could love. The walls of her shabby flat were lined with little colored postcards of northern churches. They were the architectural embodiment of the spirituality she had embraced.

The train had stopped at a country station. On the platform an old woman was sweeping the path from side to side with wide strokes of her long broom, wielding it like a scythe.

Down below, the bulky couple were playing cards now. Yes, they, too, were using this shriveled pack of cards. It was only the other day, when I was playing cards with Tatiana’s daughter Nadezhda, that I noticed it. The lowest card of the four suites was a six. There were no twos, no threes, fours, or fives. These cards were just missing. When I asked the couple why they were playing with such a diminished pack, they looked at me blankly. Anna laughed: “You’re right—I first discovered how many cards the rest of the world plays with when I read The Queen of Spades!” In Pushkin’s famous story these cards played a crucial role.

No one in the compartment knew what had happened to those missing cards. I guessed the Soviets deemed the very notion of the hierarchy to be counterrevolutionary. They probably wanted to chop out the whole royal family until someone pointed out that there would not be many card games left if they did. So they just cut the “plebeian” cards, as if to announce that from now on they were all kings and queens … Now communism was no more, but these Russians were still making do with the same censored pack.

I took out the sheaf of poems which Anna had given me to read:

I went out into a field

by the quiet river one day

and a sudden peace overcame me,

the gift of a higher will,

I stood there amazed at my fate

as if it were not mine …

That glimpse of grace

of a soul not ready

unaccustomed to understanding.

If I could only remember how it had been—

behind the village barns

at sunset on that long summer evening.

A profound change had come over Anna’s poetry, though the quality is lost in my translation. In Russian, the tranquillity she now managed to capture in her poems was the counterpoise to the painful struggle of her life.

I look at a cloud, a branch

A patch of asphalt and sand.

What I took to be a shrimp

Is in fact a folded maple leaf

And I walk along—glad of my mistake

ambushed by joy—toward

my favorite dacha—there’s the fence

the green all patched with rust

the big lock on the gate

the cabbage forgotten on the table

the glistening threads

on the freshly dug earth.

Who is there I can tell about this—

the small, lost patch of asphalt,

the dimpled sand, slightly warmed by the

crimson horror of the drought?

The train passed a deep ravine etched into the steppe. In his novel The Naked Year, Pilnyak described how bandit gangs hid in those ravines when Russia’s wheat bowl was being fought over by the Red and White armies. Trains from the cities would crawl along these tracks, crammed with starving people who had come out here to forage for food. Was it surprising that the Russians had such a fear of chaos? The 1990s were a ripple by comparison. But the genetic memory it stirred up was traumatic.

All night I spent coming to terms

with my fate. I had almost managed.

But by daybreak the rain had breathed its way

through the planks, the plaster, and the chalk.

And through the birch twig

through the spiders’ web and the glass—

on the wall that smells of chalk—

a faint bluish patch of warm.

So does it matter really, what happens to me?

The damp stoop, the hook on the door,

and the many-voiced silence

of the wind in the waving branch.

Yes, Anna had come to terms with her fate. But she found it hard to forgive those who failed to do so. Her cousin Sasha had killed himself recently, she was telling me: “I went to the funeral, of course. But I couldn’t cry—I was so angry. He was such a talented man, and so good at everything. How dare he do that to his family?”


Embarrassing though it was to discover that the source of Natasha’s information about the singing cedars came from a best-selling fairy story, I wanted to know more. Luckily, so did Sasha and Ira. So what about all those settlements which the Anastasia books were said to have inspired? Later that summer, the three of us set off to visit one out at Konyaevo, some 150 miles east of Moscow.

Often by late September the golden days are over in Russia and winter has set in. But we were lucky: it was a sunny morning and the air was crisp. The journey took most of the day. After turning south off the Vladimir road we found ourselves in an undulating landscape of lakes and birch forests blazing with yellow and gold. The day was still, without a breath of wind. Here and there a poplar trembled, like a hen shaking rain off its wings. We caught glimpses of the occasional village, tucked in the folds of the land, well away from the road.

As we drove, I considered what I had learned about the settlements since that first abortive visit to Vygovsky. The Anastasia books were nothing if not ambitious. They proposed that contemporary man was so swamped with trivial information that he had lost sight of the great issue as to where humanity was heading. Ever since the coming of Christianity Russians (and implicitly the rest of us) had been in the grip of a foreign ideology. Since then, all power had ultimately been controlled by the high priests, or their secular counterparts. The books, which had already been translated into dozens of languages, proposed that the key to liberation lay in the soil: everyone needed their own hectare of land, a place where they could live, grow their own food, and reconnect with nature and God.

First, they proposed, you have to realize your dream in imagination. Then you will be ready to wind up your old life and buy your plot of land. After that other great changes will start happening. You will begin to recover the remarkable powers which man had lost. You will not just be changing your life: you will be joining the great cosmic battle against the forces of evil …

When we finally arrived at Konyaevo we found our way barred by armed guards. Baffled, we asked at the local shop. The plump shop assistant whispered that we’d come to a secret rocket installation. She’d heard there was another Konyaevo somewhere nearby—perhaps we’d got the wrong one? It was indeed the wrong Konyaevo. We drove on through the forest for a long time until we were waylaid by a sturdy tribe of old men and women in woolly hats, who put us on the right road in return for our loading the car with cranberries and jars of pickled mushrooms.

The red sun was spinning on the horizon by the time we turned down a dirt track leading through birch forests. The land, which some collective farm had claimed from the forest in Soviet times, stood waist-high in weeds. But a crop of idiosyncratic buildings was starting to rise up, each set on its hectare of land. The place seemed deserted. Then we spotted a man working on the frame of a wooden house. Sergei, a plump, curly-haired computer programmer from Moscow, made us a cup of tea on his camping stove. When the buildings were finished there would be some six or seven hundred people here, he said, half of them young. And was it really going to be possible to feed a family from one hectare of land as the books claimed, Sasha asked? The chubby programmer smiled, unruffled: we’ll see, he said. Maybe it wouldn’t have been in the past. But a lot of the settlers were technocrats like him; they may never have lived in the country, but thanks to the Internet, which would be powered here by solar panels, they had the benefit of the latest farming techniques.

Dark fell suddenly, like a blackout curtain. We were a long way from the nearest town. Did Sergei know of anywhere we could stay the night, Sasha asked? “Dunno—most people have gone back to the city by now.” Disappointingly, it was starting to look as if these were just city folk building second homes for themselves. As we drove on down the track into the old village the headlights picked out two women walking down the track. Sasha rolled down the window: “Ladies, I wonder whether you could suggest where we could spend the night? We would pay of course …” “You’ll find no place here,” said a broad woman, clamping her jaws shut. But Sasha teased her until she surrendered to his charm and invited us home.

Aunt Ksenia, buxom and bossy, lived in a traditional wooden house with her crimson-faced, monosyllabic husband, nine hens, five goats, and three kittens. The clay stove was warm and the air sweet with the smell of animals and apples. Only seven people now lived in the village all year round, she said, and she was the youngest.

Over a meal of homegrown potatoes and tomatoes Aunt Natasha inveighed against the “sectarians,” who were ruining the countryside. They took all the firewood and bathed in the lake, naked. Most barbarous of all—they buried their dead on their plots of land! “Disgusting,” she sniffed. We fell into bed early, weighed down by her indignation.

All night two kittens tore around the darkened room wailing and I lay awake thinking of the Siberian cedars whose singing led me here. Those cedars were the symbol at the heart of the Anastasia legend: Sergei was wearing a sliver of cedar around his neck and had planted a cedar by his house. Well, Vygovsky was right about one thing: the cedar business was clearly lucrative.

Next morning, a gray mist was still clinging to the ground when we left the village. In the middle of a wasteland rank with weeds three people were working on the roof of a skeletal house. A small, elderly woman with sun-bleached features explained that she and her son had come from Kazakhstan. With Russia facing demographic collapse, people from the old colonies were now being offered inducements to return. When Sasha questioned them about Anastasia and their dreams for the future, mother and son looked perplexed. Simple people, they did not appear to be inspired by any great Russian Idea. They just needed a house and in Kazakhstan they had practiced these pioneer skills all their lives.

We were about to head back to Moscow when the other young man, who had not said a word, spoke up: “Hold on—there’s someone I think you should meet—follow me.” He led us across the wasteland toward a wood of densely grown young birches. As we followed, the sun broke through the clouds and moved across the abandoned fields. By the time we reached the wood and were walking down a winding path the woodland floor was bright with red toadstools and yellow birch leaves. We came to a clearing with a small house built of whole trees. It had not a single window or door. Nearby, a heavy plastic sheet stretched between sticks was providing rudimentary shelter. A young man with a heart-shaped face and plaited headband around his long dark hair was shoveling earth out of an enormous hole. Damir was digging his pond, he said. We followed the sound of children’s laughter down another path. In the next clearing, by a house of bright new wood, a young mother was tickling her child in a hammock, while a blond young man was laying roof felt on the house. “This is just the outhouse, but we’ll overwinter in it,” the young man explained as he showed us his handiwork. “I could’ve gone to university, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life at the whim of some boss. My father works in the prosecutor general’s office, and my uncle’s in the FSB—I could’ve done anything. But this is what I want! And I know plenty of people in Moscow who’re dying to join us. They’re just waiting to see how we get on.”

As he talked, a barefoot teenage girl had run down the path to join us. She had gray eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and long fairish hair plastered flat. She stood in the sunshine very upright, quivering slightly, as though with the effort of holding herself in check. Her skin was burnished by the sun and she was glowing with excitement.

•  •  •

“Where did you sleep last winter?” Sasha was asking. “Outside, of course, in the tents!” the girl broke in. “It’s fine, really!” Her words tumbled out like fish from a net. “I knew very early on that I didn’t want to live like other people. I’d go to the shops and I could never see anything I wanted to buy. Hems a little longer, hems a little shorter—just more things. And the longer you stay out here the less you need. You start to change.”

Damir’s girl was a musician, like him. “Would you like to hear us play?” she said, taking charge of us. “Come back for our marriage next April,” called the blond young man as we followed her. “Will there be a priest?” asked Sasha. “Oh no—nothing like that,” he was emphatic. “Everyone’ll dress in glorious clothes. There’ll be lots of games, and dancing.”

Damir’s girl had run on ahead of us. She moved like a deer, leaping as she ran. While she and Damir took out their instruments—she a fiddle, he a guitar and mouth organ—they talked about how they had traveled across Russia, hitching lifts, earning their way with Damir’s songs.

“Good morning, planet, we greet you!” “Thank you for the gift of life!” “We are happy, happy, happy, today,” they sang. They were a musical couple, and their happiness was infectious, but my heart sank at the relentless cheerfulness. Ira, who clearly felt the same, said: “That was lovely. But do you have songs for sad occasions, too?” Damir’s girl replied for both of them: “But we’ve got nothing to be sad about!”

“Come on,” Damir’s girl said, leading us across an abandoned field toward another wood. In a glade a swing had been hoisted between two tall trees. This was where they met up in the evenings to dance and sing around the bonfire. Ira asked about their plans: presumably they would start a family soon? “Not for some time—there’s an awful lot to be done before then,” replied the girl. “The house has to be finished, then there’s the planting. It’s got to be perfect.”

“But you wouldn’t mind if a little one came along before?”

“It won’t,” the girl replied, a touch sharply.

I was swinging backward and forward, high in the trees, and I lost the rest of their conversation. But something about the way the two women were standing, heads close, taut, suggested that the conversation had taken an unexpected turn.

The couple showed us their secret spring: in a copse of birches the clear water rose languidly out of the earth and curled like a shell. At a lake fringed with birches we stripped off in the milky sunshine and dived in; the water was brown as tea, cold and pure. “Now we’ve shown you all our favorite places,” Damir’s girl said as we returned to the car.

“Aren’t you afraid to be out here on your own?” asked Sasha as we said good-bye. “What’s there to be afraid of?” replied Damir’s girl. “Well, we’ve been hearing these horror stories about people who’ve bought land, then found some Chechen still owned the title deeds.” The couple looked at Sasha and smiled. “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be all right,” Damir reassured him.

Yes, it would be, I reflected. Unlike their parents or grandparents these two were not afraid. If anything bad happened to them, they would head off and build a home deeper in the forest, like earlier generations of Russians who had rejected the incursion of state power into their lives.

As we drove back away, Damir’s girl was standing waving in the autumn sunshine among the silver birches. I thought of all those European travelers who had returned home with stories about a golden woman hidden in the forests of Russia. For me, Damir’s girl was golden enough.

I asked Ira what the two of them were talking about in the glade. “She was trying—very delicately—to point out why she knew she wasn’t going to get pregnant before they’d built their home—I was so obtuse, I just couldn’t get it!”


“She’s a virgin.”

Only once they had built their home and taught themselves how to live off their land, and off the forests, would they live together as man and wife. That is what she wanted Ira to know. They were working their way back to a state of grace, rebuilding Eden for their children. They did not believe in Original Sin, though: organized religion was just another way of controlling people, preventing them from realizing their freedom, she told Ira. Their children would be different.

Yes, what my golden girl and Damir were building was much more than a home. They really were reimagining Russia.

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