Axiology of power in the Russian language and culture

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The relevance of linguocultural modeling of power is due to the high importance of this phenomenon in institutional and personal communication and the multidimensionality of its evaluative characteristics. The aim of the study is to identify and describe linguistically relevant norms of behavior encoded in the concept of “power”. The data from dictionaries and reference books, examples from the National Corpus of the Russian Language, poetic and prose texts in Russian were used as material for the analysis. Methods of semantic, contextual, interpretative and associative analysis were applied. It has been established that power in the conceptual plane represents coercion and includes: (1) the condition (force, authority, tradition or law); (2) struggle for getting and keeping power; (3) manifestation of power (persons or organizations vested with power, the sphere of power application and the degree of coercion); (4) power assessment (fair/unfair, cruel/merciful, effective/ineffective). In figurative terms, the situational characteristics of power manifestation, verbalized in texts and reactions of the informants, were highlighted. The conceptualization of power is discursively specific. The authors revealed that the most vivid situational characteristics of power implementation in relation to its representatives are noted in journalistic texts. In fiction texts (mainly in poetry), power is shown as an irresistible force. In evaluative terms, it is possible to identify norms of behavior associated with the understanding of power - its acceptance as the most important condition of social order and condemnation of excessive striving for power and its abuse. These norms expressed in proverbs, jokes and aphorisms largely coincide, differing in that proverbs recommend to stay away from power, jokes sharply criticize corruption in power, aphorisms give a holistic picture of the proper behavior of the power holders and their subordinates. Prospects for the study consist in defining linguistically relevant personal typological evaluations of power.

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Power as a regulator of social relations is among the most important institutional parameters of society. This concept has many dimensions – social, political, historical, legal, psychological, religious and communicative. The study of the conceptualization of power allows to see the features of the linguistic picture of the world and in this regard is one of the most important indicators in the linguistic and cultural modeling of language (Vereshchagin, Kostomarov, 2005; Vorobyev, 1997; Dementyev, 2016; Kusse, 2022; Stepanov, 1997). The importance of the phenomenon of power is evidenced in the number of research works devoted to it: various aspects of power have been the topic of 4522 dissertations, according to the electronic catalog of the Russian State Library. The problem “Language and power” has been developed in detail in social psychology, sociolinguistics and pragmalinguistics by domestic (Serio, 1993; Ilyin, Melvil, 1997; Lassvell, 2006) and foreign scientists (Fairclough, 1996; Morand, 2000; Rojo, 2016), who have considered the peculiarities of interaction and functioning of these concepts (Holtgraves, Lasky, 1999), identified the connection of the concepts “politeness/non-politeness” with the concept “power” (Harris, 2003; Victoria, 2009; Oliver, 2022) and certain linguistic tactics and strategies used as a regulator of relations in society (Antaki, Stokoe, 2017; Witek, 2022). This concept has attracted the attention of linguists in individual discursive studies (Chervatyuk, 2006; Erofeeva, 2009; Pimenova, 2012), in studying the ways of representing linguistic consciousness and linguistic picture of the world (Shabanova, 2011; Astafurova, Olyanich, 2015; Vasilyev, 2015; Gogenko, 2015; Demidova, 2021), and in considering their representation in various functional genres and styles (Balashova, 2010; Kipenko, 2010). Semiotic characteristics of power were analyzed, the metaphor of this concept was described, its symbolic content was revealed, its discursive specificity was determined. At the same time, in the linguistic and axiological aspect, this phenomenon has not been studied enough yet (Mikhailov, 2010; Shabanova, 2011; Kasatkina, 2012; Kipenko, 2012), which is of particular interest in the synchronous and diachronic aspects of the development and functioning of the concept. It is assumed that the comprehension of power in Russian linguistic culture has conceptual, figurative and value expression, different aspects of power are specifically represented in different types of discourse, the value content of this concept is comprehended differently by different types of individuals. The aim of the study is to characterize the value attributes of the concept “power” in Russian linguistic consciousness.

Methods and materials

Methods of interpretative analysis of dictionary definitions and universal statements, contextual analysis of text fragments, content analysis of stimuli and reactions recorded in associative dictionaries were used. The material of the research was definitions from explanatory dictionaries and reference books,1 text fragments from the National Corpus of the Russian Language,2 proverbs and sayings in associative dictionaries of the Russian language,3 extracted from paremiological reference books4 and collection of aphorisms,5 jokes placed on the Internet.6

The description of linguistic and cultural concepts is the identification of their conceptual attributes, the determination of their perceptually perceived characteristics expressed verbally, and the establishment of value orientations presented in texts whose main function is edification (proverbs, sayings, parables and anecdotes) (Vorkachev, 2014; Karasik, 2002; Krasavsky, 2008; Slyshkin, 2004; Sternin, 2008).


As a result of conceptual description of power in Russian linguistic culture, the basic conceptual, figurative-perceptual and value signs of this mental formation have been established, their interrelation has been shown, their discursive specificity has been characterized and the features of axiological comprehension of power in the consciousness of typical speakers of the Russian language have been revealed.

In conceptual terms, power is coercion and includes (1) the condition (force, authority, tradition or law), (2) struggle for obtaining and retaining power, (3) manifestation of power (powerful peoples or organizations vested, the sphere of its application and degree of coercion) and (4) its evaluation (fair/unfair, cruel/merciful, effective/ineffective).

In figurative terms the situational characteristics of the manifestation of power, verbalized in the text fragments and the reactions of the informants, are highlighted. The conceptualization of power is discursively specific. The situational characteristics of the implementation of power are most clearly marked in journalism in relation to its representatives. In the fiction text (mainly in poetry) power is shown as an irresistible force.

In evaluative terms, it is possible to identify norms of behavior associated with the understanding of power – its acceptance as the most important condition of social order and condemnation of excessive striving for power and its abuse. These norms, expressed in proverbs, anecdotes and aphorisms, largely coincide. The difference is that proverbs recommend to stay away from power, jokes sharply criticize corruption in power, aphorisms provide a holistic picture of the proper behavior of holders of power and their subordinates.


Conceptual features of the concept “power”

In the explanatory dictionaries of the Russian language and encyclopedic dictionaries the word “power” is defined as follows:

“1. The right and opportunity to dispose of, to command, to subordinate one's will. 2. Power, domination, strength. 3. Officials, superiors, administration. 4. only Singular. Political supremacy; the right to govern a state or region; the bodies endowed with such a right. 5. An organ of state administration, government” (Kuznetsov); “the right, power and will over something, freedom of action and orders; superintendence; administration; chief or chiefs” (Dahl); “1. If you have power over someone or something, you have the right and ability to control something, to demand from other people to do what you want, to obey. 2. Power is the right to politically and economically govern a state, a region, a city, etc., and those organizations and people who have that right. 3. Power is the government of a country, its leaders; often used in the context of criticism” (Dmitriev); "1) ability, right and opportunity to dispose someone, something, to have decisive influence on the fate, behavior and activity, moral and traditions of people by various means – law, authority, will, court, compulsion; 2) political dominion over people, their communities, organizations, countries and their groups; 3) system of state bodies; 4) people, bodies that traditionally have the corresponding state and administrative  authorities or have usurped the authorities” (Khalipov).

Summarizing the above definitions, we highlight the following attributes: (1) the possibility to exercise power (ability, right, strength); (2) realizing the power (order, submission others to their will, coercion); (3) the subjects of power (people, state bodies, leaders, chiefs, commanders, in a figurative sense – feelings); (4) objects of power (people, communities, organizations, countries); (5) evaluative attitude to power (striving for power by the subjects, submission to power by the objects, opposition to power by the objects). The central attribute is the exercise of power, i.e. imposing one's will on others. The closest to the central attributes are the methods of such imposition – the use of force, traditions, authority and powers. The exercise of power is preceded by a struggle for it or its transfer by birthright. The internal form of the word vlast’ ‘power’ is a state of possession – vladet’  ‘to possess’.

In psychological terms, it is noted that “for thousands of years, the attribute of power has aroused a lust for power among a variety of people, whose mental dominant was a thirst for leadership. The famous Yugoslav philosopher and politician M. Djilas, who himself was at the highest levels of party and state power, called it ‘the pleasure of pleasures’, it is noted that F. Nietzsche defined happiness as ‘the feeling of growing power’ ” (Semenov, 2006: 3). In the political science, two vectors in the understanding of power are distinguished: power over someone and power for something (Ball, 1993). Here is a certain similarity with the understanding of freedom: freedom from something and for something. The first vector in the understanding of power (as well as freedom) is a basic condition for realizing certain needs of an individual and/or a group, the second vector is derived from the first and turns the possibility into action. Noteworthy is the structural representation of the phenomenon of power, which distinguishes three aspects: directive (relations of domination and subordination), functional (management processes) and communicative (reproduction of forms of communication with subordinate structures) (Ilyin, Melvil, 1996).

Figurative-perceptual characteristics of the concept “power”

Figurative-perceptual characteristics of the considered concept are established on the basis of the text realization of the nominant of this mental formation (its contextual environment) and the analysis of associative dictionaries and the survey of informants, who answered the question: “When I think about power, I imagine...” The textual realization of the concept “power” in the National Corpus of the Russian Language is represented in 10,996 documents. Let us note that figurative and perceptual characteristics of the concepts differ fundamentally in relation to different types of mental formations. So, subject concepts are described on externally perceived signs (the ship moves on a water surface, the book stands on a shelf, the door opens with a creak), live beings show themselves in typical behavior (dogs bark and wag the tail, wasps sting), emotional concepts are understood in ways of expressing these or those emotions (people blush of shame, are frozen of fear), more complex semantic formations require a characteristic of the situation they generalize (people try to hide and unravel a mystery, truth is understood in correspondence of the said and the reality, and trade is shown as sale and purchase of certain goods in a store or at a bazaar). Power in this regard is a complex situational concept, including typified participants who are not equal in their position. In addition, the concepts have discursive specificity: some of them mainly belong to everyday communication (human appearance, clothes, usual behavior), others characterize the pedagogical or scientific sphere (explanation, proof, verification of assumptions), others belong to legal sphere (law and its violations), the fourth cover the political sphere (social system, its institutions and accepted forms and rituals of behavior). All types of concepts can be comprehended in artistic discourse. The concept "power" is predominantly used in publicist and political communication, although it should be noted that certain concepts are used in different types of discourse.

According to the National Corpus of the Russian Language, political discourse emphasizes the systemic features of power – coercion and the selection of a group of subjects – bearers of power:

The state is characterized by coercive power (V.I. Lenin).

The state is characterized by a special class of people in whose hands power is concentrated (V.I. Lenin).

The famous philosopher emphasizes an important characteristic of the subjects of political power:

Power has never belonged and cannot belong to the majority (N. Berdyaev).

The idea of coercion implies force – mental and physical – as a condition for the retention of power:

...there are people with a very strong biofield who have power over others (I. Kio).

A well-known Soviet illusionist gives a biological explanation of the phenomenon of power.

An essential feature of this concept is struggle:

As a member of a political party, I fight for power (A. Andreev).

The romanticists would be quickly shot down and the most cynical and pragmatic group would seize power (LiveJournal).

The struggle for power ends with the seizure of power. From the perspective of the losers in this struggle, the winners are condemned. Power can be lost:

Bespalov not only destabilized the party, but also discredited power (A. Sadchikov).

An important characteristic of power should be its acceptance by the objects of management:

To begin with, power in the eyes of the governed must be legitimate, i.e. it must have some higher sanction (the divine right of kings, the democratic choice of the sovereign people, the King and High Priest according to the rank of Melchizedek, etc.) (M. Sokolov).

The legitimacy of power is emphasized.

Publicists criticize the authorities for being corrupted:

Because our government is mostly not concerned about who and how much stole, but about something else. Who dares to bypass the authorities? They should have shared (I. Galperin).

And that's why everyone wants to convert their power into some kind of property, which without oligarchs is simply impossible (E. Kostyuk).

These examples accentuate the sign of property as a motivating reason for gaining power.

The same signs are repeated in the metonymic transfer – representatives of power as its embodiment:

It is quite obvious that the main brakes for the development of small and medium-sized businesses today are regional authorities (D. Viktorov).

The artistic text specifies the above-named characteristics of power:

“Among other things I used to say,” said the prisoner, “that all power is violence against men and that there will come a time when there will be no power of Caesars or any other power” (M. Bulgakov).

If I may observe, the despot-teacher guarded his power fiercely, very fond of destroying people, of showing his power (D. Granin).

As is the case with every man who acquires power over something, the first thing I did was to check the extent of its completeness and enjoy seeing its reality (F. Iskander).

The above examples emphasize coercion of power, its destructive nature for its bearers and the pleasure it brings them in itself.

Let us pay attention to the exercise of power:

Power needs scenery. It also gives birth to servility (V. Khodasevich).

The famous poet notes the need for rituals that make power a fact of culture, and the impact that power has on some subordinates.

The Russian poetic tradition clearly expresses a critical attitude to power:

Everywhere the unrighteous Power / In the thickened darkness of prejudice / Has risen – Slavery's formidable Genius / And Glory's fatal passion (A.S. Pushkin).

But our desire still burns in us, / Under the oppression of fatal power / With impatient soul / We listen to the call of the Fatherland (A.S. Pushkin).

This idea is clarified in the definition of power as slavery and unbearable burden. Pushkin's attitude toward power dominates Russian poetry of the 20th century:

Let us glorify power's gloomy burden, / Its unbearable oppression (O. Mandelstam).

I want no power over people, / No honors, no victorious wars. / Let me freeze like tar on the pines, / But I am not a king, I am from another family (A. Tarkovsky).

The lines of the famous poem that became a song are revealing:

God grant me not to get into power / and not to heroize falsely, / and to be rich – but not to steal, / of course, if that is possible (Ye. Yevtushenko).

In this prayer request, power is directly associated with dirt.

The poetic text shows the narcotic essence of power:

It seems to me / that power and honors are / salty / sea water: / the longer one drinks, / the more one wants, / and the thirst / does not let go (N. Aseev).

At the same time, in poetry, power is interpreted broadly, as the irresistible effect of something on the soul:

So – harmonic instruments / The power is limitless over the soul, / And all living people love / Their dark, but native language (F. Tyutchev).

Even now there are still prophets, / Though altars have fallen, / Their eyes are clear and deep / By the coming flame of the dawn. / But they are so alien to the call of victory, / They are crushed by the power of bottomless words, / They are intimidated and pale / In the hulks of stone houses (N. Gumilev).

After all, isn't that why / We know the creative power, / To hobble good and pain – / To warm and not to curse! (S. Gandlevsky).

The power of creative burning, on the one hand, subdues a person, but, on the other hand, gives him the opportunity for maximum self-disclosure. This understanding of power applies not only to creativity, but to any strong influence of the natural element on the world and, metaphorically, to the influence of feelings on human behavior.

Note that in Russian poetic texts the word “power” often rhymes with the word “passion”, such an anagrammatic connection of these names of the concepts to a certain extent brings them closer:

I knew only one thought power, one – but a fiery passion (M. Lermontov).

Referring to associative dictionaries of the Russian language, we get information that the minds of our contemporaries are dominated with figurative signs of power in the form of senior state officials and their attributes, historical figures, local government representatives, while it can be noted that this concept is strongly associated with wealth and use of force (it corresponds to the conceptual signs) and quite often has negative connotations (Russian Associative Dictionary; Russian Associative Dictionary: Associative Reactions of Schoolchildren of I–XI forms).

In order to clarify these data, a questionnaire survey of the informants (Russian students and teachers of the Pushkin State Institute of the Russian Language) was carried out. The respondents were asked the following question: “What image arises in your mind when you think of power?” The following answers were received: the boss is conducting a meeting with employees; a doctor does not allow a patient to leave the hospital; a teacher is reprimanding a pupil; parents are scolding a child; an officer is giving a command to soldiers; a traffic inspector is stopping a driver; a politician is speaking at a large meeting; a session of the State Duma is in progress; a tsar is sitting on the throne; a policeman is asking a passerby to show his documents; the judge is pronouncing a sentence; a customs officer is demanding to open a suitcase; a tamer is making a circus lion jump into a burning ring; a salesmen does not let in buyers without masks; a sales clerk does not allow a customer to enter. In addition, the following responses were received: a whip; an administrative building; a courthouse; a prison building.

In all these situations, superiors (elder people or authorities) have the right and authority to make those below them perform certain actions or forbid them to behave in a certain way. Objective and topological images of authority are directly associated with the use of force and the place where decisions are made or punishment is carried out.

Evaluative attributes of the concept “power”

The evaluative understanding of power is reflected in proverbs and sayings. We can see the following instructions on this topic in Russian paremiology.

People should know:

– that the established authority should be obeyed:

All power is from God. You live under God means you carry God's will. You cannot dispute about God's will;

– it is better to stay away from power:

Near the king is near death;

– they mustn’t go against authority:

Do not fight with the mighty, do not judge with the rich. Those who have power also have the law;

– ordinary people do not get power:

When power was divided, they forgot to call us. Who has the money, has the power;

– those who hold power are cruel:

Tame, O Lord, the commander's heart! Power is given not to love but to crush. He who has power does not pity the poor. Every power adds to the rich, takes away from the poor;

– especially cruel are those who occupy the lowest rungs of power:

The tsar has pity, but the kennelman has no pity. To beg the governor is to imprison oneself. God has punished the people, and sent down the voivods. In Russia there is too much power;

– exercising power is a difficult task:

It is easier to follow a herd than to lead a herd.

One can see that the bearers of these norms are simple poor powerless people. A detailed analysis of Russian proverbs and sayings on the topic of power is given in the article by O.M. Anichkova (Anichkova, 2018), although, in our opinion, the analyzed material goes beyond power relations and considers the social system of peasant Russia in general. The author distinguishes three aspects of power: the political structure of society, moral and psychological attitudes of the population and irresistible force, external and internal elements (power of nature, feelings, etc.). Such an approach can be characterized as an extremely broad understanding of power (the above-named author points out such sayings as “The goose is no companion to the pig”, “If there is a neck, there will be a clamp”, etc.). One cannot but agree with the author that “paremias featuring lower-ranking officials, which peasants and city dwellers encountered the most frequently, are the most juicy, poisonous, full of evil and vivid metaphors, breathing contempt and hatred” (Ibid.: 103). The linguistic literature has repeatedly emphasized the evaluative dialecticism of paremias7 (Kovshova, 2021; Savitsky, 2006).

Modern urban folklore is represented primarily by jokes.

In these texts, representatives of the authorities are subjected to caustic criticism. The connection between power and money is noted:

Neither power nor money can corrupt a good man. Because if you are a truly good person, you will never have either.

Anonymous critics question the essence of democracy:

Who says democracy is the power of the people? Democracy is the power of democrats.

The theme of official corruption is emphasized:

The candidate is asked by journalists:

– What is your purpose in running for office?

– Look at what is going on in the government: officials are wallowing in debauchery, theft, and corruption!

– Are you going to fight all this?

– Oh no, – the candidate replies. – I want to take part in all this!

Criticism of the unequal distribution of wealth is topical:

When the government cheats, the oligarchs get the hydrocarbons and the people do with oxygen.

Let us note the ridiculous position of the media that justifies or ignores social inequality:

The experience of the Titanic taught power that the louder are the screams from the lower decks, the louder the orchestra is playing upstairs.

Now, those who say that power works poorly are subject to a contempt of power, and those who say that power works well are subject to the dissemination of fake news.

At the same time, the position of critics is also ridiculous:

Grandmothers who stand in line for more than half an hour have been found to forget why they came and start cursing the authorities.

Unfortunately, the texts of jokes and jokes posted on the Internet, including those about the authorities, are often crude and scurrilous.

Speaking about the evaluative understanding of power in Russian linguistic culture, it is necessary to characterize the attitude of the intelligentsia to this phenomenon. This attitude in any era is especially critical, since the activities of the authorities often do not correspond to the highest moral norms. Accordingly, the authorities distrust the intellectuals, although usually the criticism of the authorities by intellectuals is veiled and ironic. While proverbs express mainly the peasant attitude to the world, jokes express the attitude of urban dwellers with different levels of education, educated speakers use the specific genre – aphorisms. Aphorisms are international: wise sayings created in another language become the property of any host culture, more precisely – the property of the educated layer of this culture. Here are examples from the encyclopedia of aphorisms.

Aphorisms note the devastating effect of power on its bearers:

Men, ruling over others, lose their own freedom (F. Bacon).

For people with unlimited power, outside democratic control, common, habitual are feelings of infallibility, personal superiority, permissiveness, overestimation of their own abilities and capabilities (D. Volkogonov).

Power is attractive, difficult to resist:

Lust for power is the most flagrant of all the passions (Tacitus).

Power is a table which no one will willingly leave (F. Iskander).

The connection between power and money has been pointed out since antiquity:

Those who buy power for money get used to profit from it (Aristotle).

Let us pay attention to the classification of rulers in the saying of the great Chinese sage:

Where great sages have power, citizens do not notice their existence. Where minor sages rule, the people are attached to them and praise them. Where even lesser sages rule, the people fear them, and where even lesser ones rule, the people despise them (Lao Tzu).

The following classic statement is well-known:

A power over yourself is the highest power. Enslavement by passions is the most horrible enslavement (Seneca).

Aphorists critically characterize not only rulers, but also their subjects:

People don't want a gifted person in power. They don't tolerate the gifted. They only tolerate stupidity. (L. Feuchtwanger).

A well-known playwright assesses the attitude towards power from different positions:

Generally speaking, power does not spoil people, but fools, when they are in power, spoil power (B. Shaw).

Thus, the specificity of the aphoristic comprehension of power consists in singling out different positions of the subjects of power relations (those who rule and those over whom power is exercised) and assessment of these positions.


We see the prospects of the research in studying linguopersonological comprehension of power, i.e. in identifying linguistically relevant personality types, aspiring to power, opposing and submitting to it, critically assessing it. Thus, the axiological characteristics of power in Russian linguistic culture can be represented as a model that includes three concentric circles: the central one, which reflects conceptual, figurative and value attributes of power; the first outer one, which shows discursive features of power comprehension; the second outer one, which reflects personally relevant ideas about power.


1 Kuznetsov, S.A. (Comp. and Ed.). (1998). The big explanatory dictionary of the Russian language. St. Petersburg: Norint Publ. (In Russ.); Dahl, V.I. (1994). Explanatory dictionary of the living great Russian language. Мoscow: Terra Publ. (In Russ.); Dmitriev, D.V. (Ed.). (2003). The explanatory dictionary of the Russian language. Мoscow: Astrel Publ., AST Publ. (In Russ.); Khalipov, V.F. (1997). Power : Kratological dictionary. Мoscow: Respublika Publ. (In Russ.)

2 National Corpus of the Russian Language. Retrieved from

3 Karaulov, Yu.N., Cherkasova, G.A., Ufimtseva, N.V., Sorokin, Y.A., & Tarasov, E.F. (2002). Russian associative dictionary. Vol. 1. From stimulus to reaction. About 7000 stimuli. Moscow: Astrel Publ., AST Publ. (In Russ.); Goldin, V.E., Sdobnova, A.P., Martyanov, A.O. (2011). Russian associative dictionary: Associative reactions of schoolchildren of I–XI forms. Vol. I. From stimulus to reaction. Saratov: Publishing House of Saratov University. (In Russ.)

4 The following dictionaries of proverbs are analyzed: Dahl, V.I. (1996). Proverbs of the Russian people: Collection (vol. 1). Мoscow: Terra Publ. (In Russ.); Dahl, V.I. (1996). Proverbs of the Russian people: Collection (vol. 2). Мoscow: Terra Publ. (In Russ.); Zhukov, V.P. (1993). Dictionary of Russian proverbs and sayings. Мoscow: Russky Yazyk Publ. (In Russ.); Sobolev, A.I. (Comp.) (1983). Russian proverbs and sayings. Moscow: Sovetskaya Rossiya Publ. (In Russ.)

5 Ermishin, O.T. (Comp.). (2006). Aphorisms. Golden fund of wisdom. Moscow: Prosveshcheniye. (In Russ.)

6 Jokes. Retrieved from

7 Alefirenko, N.F., & Semenenko, N.N. (2018). Phraseology and paremiology: Textbook. Moscow: Flinta Publ. (In Russ.)


About the authors

Vladimir I. Karasik

Pushkin State Russian Language Institute

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8306-5317

Doctor of Philology, Professor of the Department of General and Russian Linguistics

6 Akademika Volgina St, Moscow, 117485, Russian Federation

Ella A. Kitanina

Pushkin State Russian Language Institute

ORCID iD: 0000-0002-1936-9495

Doctor of Philology, Head of the Department of General and Russian Linguistics

6 Akademika Volgina St, Moscow, 117485, Russian Federation


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