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A New Environmental History of Socialist States

View on River Angara with the Shaman Stone and on Lake Baikal from Chersky Stone

View on River Angara with the Shaman Stone and on Lake Baikal from Chersky Stone. Trees are Larix × czekanowskii (natural hybrid L. sibirica × L. gmelinii). By Brücke-Osteuropa - Own work, Public Domain, Link.

Andy Bruno is an associate professor of history and environmental studies at Northern Illinois University and the author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History and Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy.
Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 288 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Starting in the late 1970s, a narrative emerged about the extreme levels of environmental damage in the Soviet Union and, by implication, most state-socialist countries. The explosion and initial cover-up at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 did much to crystallize this image of the environmental record of socialist states as being worse than those of their capitalist counterparts. One of the best-known statements of this position declared that historians’ “autopsy on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism…may reach the verdict of death by ecocide.”1 Instead, over the past twenty years, environmental historians of the Soviet Union have largely come to the opposite conclusion. As severe as the environmental problems were and as much as the efforts at environmental management proved ineffective, the world’s first socialist state mostly resembled industrialized capitalist countries on this front.2 This move to re-evaluate strictly negative visions of the USSR’s environmental legacy has even been applied to the Stalinist era, which, as it turns out, possessed surprisingly robust forest protection policies.3

Ecosocialist thinkers have started to take note of this shift in the historical scholarship. For a long time, discussion of the environmental legacy of the Soviet Union on the left was characterized by hasty dismissals of the irrelevance of the experience for contemporary struggles or suspicion of anyone raising the question as a mouthpiece for capitalism. The recent openness to rethinking non-capitalist environmental efforts of the past has been a welcome development. In a spirited 2015 article on Soviet ecology, John Bellamy Foster argues that “the USSR can be seen as a society that generated some of the worst ecological catastrophes in history but that also gave birth to some of the most profound ecological ideas and practices, based on materialist, dialectical, and socialist intellectual foundations.”4 He focuses primarily on ecological thinking in the late Soviet era to highlight the fresh, innovative, and under-appreciated contributions of Marxist scientists and philosophers, who were grappling intellectually with environmental problems. While seeing positive trends in environmental performance at the very end of the Soviet period, he also echoes a claim of historians that the ecological revolution in environmental consciousness came to an abrupt and tragic end with the collapse of the country in 1991.5

Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro advances this interpretative thread even further in his revelatory new book, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures. By expanding the study to all known efforts to establish socialism in modern states, he comes to an even more recuperative conclusion. Not only “were some disastrous environmental impacts of state socialism…neither pervasive nor intrinsic,” but the net effects of socialist states were “environmentally constructive.” The “accomplishments within state-socialist countries” are “practicable examples from which ecosocialist futures can be built.”6 By including everywhere from Burkina Faso to Bolivia, Engel-Di Mauro forces readers to consider more limited and recent moments of experimentation instead of simply extrapolating from the socialist countries that were the most committed to industrialization. He also offers a wide-ranging comparison of the aggregate ecological footprints of the state-socialist and capitalist worlds. Though deriding state socialism as worse for the environment than capitalism has long made little sense, the evidence presented in this book convincingly argues that the environmental performance of all previous state-socialist economies taken together should be seen as superior.

A specialist in the political ecology of soil and a geography professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Engel-Di Mauro is also the chief editor of the longstanding ecosocialist journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, where he has often penned editorials under the abbreviation Saed. Aligned with an “anarchist-communist and (eco)feminist variant of ecosocialism,” he describes gradually abandoning his previous view of the historical attempts to establish socialist states as invariably leading to ecocidal authoritarianism. His greater willingness to see positives in the past is aimed less at “finding the praiseworthy in ‘socialist’ states” than at “reconsidering their environmental impacts according to wider global and ecological contexts” in the hope of understanding “what challenges can be expected in the struggle for socialism and what can be done differently for a socialist future.”7

Several initial steps ground this analysis. First, Engel-Di Mauro rejects purist attempts to deny that the socialist states of the twentieth century were socialist at all from those who point to the ways that they departed from socialist principles or malign them as mere variants of state capitalism. The commitment of generations of activists, organizers, and revolutionaries who formed those states and their bold efforts to create something better than capitalism should not be dismissed as aberrations from obvious doctrines. In his view, socialist states represent transitory phases between capitalism and full socialism. The contradictions and deficiencies within them often reflect the very struggles to launch socialism, rather than a deliberate abandonment of a new political economy.

Second, this overall position leads to a helpful round of gatekeeping on Engel-Di Mauro’s part, where he outlines nine overarching characteristics of state-socialist countries and, based on these criteria, classifies twenty-six countries as having been state-socialist and an additional twelve cases of avowedly socialist countries with capitalist economies. One can quibble with some of his placements (the Soviet Union during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s might fairly count in the latter category and North Korea could still be read as state-socialist after the rise of the Juche ideology in the 1970s), but the general framework clarifies much. Nearly half of the countries under state socialism never industrialized, which makes it misleading to use the conditions of places like East Germany as stand-ins for the state-socialist world.

The third step is to pay attention to the evolving and wide-ranging historical contexts in which state socialism emerged, including repeated bouts of militarized action, such as foreign involvement in the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and numerous CIA-sponsored ousters of socialist regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A hostile capitalist world system shaped and constrained state-socialist regimes at every phase of their history. Finally, a brief discussion of the shifting political, intellectual, and economic contexts that socialist efforts have encountered since the nineteenth century sets the stage for a dialectical evaluation of environmental conditions under state socialism.

The heart of Engel-Di Mauro’s argument appears in a chapter that compares the environmental performance of state socialism to capitalism. At once skeptical of the value of attempting such sweeping comparisons and committed to engaging in the exercise in order to dispel claims of capitalism’s superiority, he delineates three possible criteria and applies each in turn. Though most dismissive of comparisons that rank “a social system’s overall environmental impact” in absolutist terms, he shows that the most severe instances of environmental destruction clearly occurred in capitalist countries instead of state-socialist ones. Even so, “synchronic” evaluations, which assess events in different countries during the same historical period, can still be “useful to get a panoramic, global view of environmental impact.” An examination of an array of environmental indices—aggregate and per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and sulfur; soil degradation; and ecological footprints—generally shows favorable outcomes for non-capitalist locations, except regarding sulfur pollution. In terms of the carbon emissions driving climate change today, state-socialist countries released less than their share of the global population from 1946 to 1991. Engel-Di Mauro sees the most utility in a “diachronous” approach that looks at specific countries over time and stresses that, in many places, environmental impacts were worse both before and after the rule of state-socialist regimes.8

This largely compelling assessment suffers at times from an impatience toward other scholars, as if any attempts to grapple with the environmental legacy of state socialism that do not begin from his own political perspective merely serve to enhance “the current ruling classes’ merriment” by getting “mired in allegedly greater depth or nuance.” Engel-Di Mauro directs much animus at the vague assumptions of other scholars while sometimes citing few actual proponents of the views he is combating. Indeed, his distrust of “the poverty of comparisons”—as opposed to a simple acknowledgment of the limitation of any comparative framework— almost risks undermining the extremely important conclusions that he makes. The case for state socialism’s environmental superiority does not benefit from lunging at strawpeople or deriding scholars who appreciate the same difficulties with comparisons that he does. Anyone who still believes that the environmental impacts of state-socialist countries should be regarded as being more, or even equally, significant than those of capitalist ones will have to wrestle with the powerful evidence that he presents.9

The long-term, diachronous perspective that Engel-Di Mauro prefers is largely shared by environmental historians, who gravitate toward chronology and capturing change over time. He undertakes this type of analysis in a lengthy chapter that looks at the environmental performance of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba throughout their histories. Cuba, which he considers the sole remaining country that should be classified as state-socialist and “the most environmentally sustainable country on Earth,” offers the strongest case for socialist environmental achievements. When revolutionaries took over the island, it had suffered deeply from the impact of a plantation economy based on sugar. The first several decades under Fidel Castro witnessed moderate attempts at industrial development and more robust ones at “high-input, capital-intensive farming,” with predictable negative environmental consequences. Even in this period, however, indices of pollution and ecological footprints were much lower than in most of the world. The real change came with the Soviet collapse amid the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo. Engel Di-Mauro compellingly counters claims that the move toward sustainable agriculture in the 1990s should be read simply as the result of economic hardship. The deliberate decision of the Cuban regime to prioritize living within ecological limits and engage in environmental protection, while attempting to maintain decent standards of material well-being, could have been different. Plenty of places under siege have turned away from environmental concerns. Instead, the Cuban case during the last few decades presents a plausible scenario of how, outside of Indigenous societies, economy and ecology might be balanced.

The lessons from China are different, however. Engel Di-Mauro labels it as a “fulcrum for world ecosocialist struggles.” Significant for his discussion is the position that China can only be considered an embodiment of state socialism until the start of market reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978. This classificatory work—correct, in my view—allows Engel-Di Mauro to pin many of the environmental problems that have arisen in China today on capitalism, rather than on state socialism. It also allows one to read the Maoist era as necessarily reactive to previous imperial dominance and ecological degradation, and constrained by a capitalist world system. Nevertheless, decisions by the Chinese government also bear responsibility for socially and ecologically devastating developments during the 1950s and ’60s. Context can often be explanatory, but rarely exculpatory.10

The treatment of the Soviet experience overlaps most closely with my own knowledge. On one hand, Engel Di-Mauro readily admits that the environmental impacts of the USSR “were at times destructive, and on a couple of occasions lastingly catastrophic.”11 On the other hand, his approach aims to highlight the country’s role in “creating mass ecological consciousness.” Much emphasis is placed on the development of a distinctive form of nature reserve (zapovedniki) based on a stronger conservationist mission than many protected territories and national parks elsewhere in the world. Engel-Di Mauro also cites the widespread emergence of ecological values among the Soviet population, as well as some successes at pollution abatement at the very end of the country’s lifespan. In addition, he notes underappreciated efforts at forest preservation and restoration, greening cities, public transportation, environmental monitoring, and soil conservation. Most specialists in the environmental history of the Soviet Union are familiar with these trends, but contemporary ecosocialists might not be.

As a radical reframing of the USSR’s environmental legacy, this portrayal offers an important riposte to the overwrought claims of communist ecocide. However, it ends up framing valuable countercurrents as the main story of the Soviet treatment of the non-human natural world. The initial years of the Stalinist period, from the late 1920s to early 1940s, receives comparatively little discussion. Yet this era, despite witnessing less environmental degradation than what came later, was the most decisive in shaping how the Soviet Union engaged with the natural environment until its final days. The move toward rapid industrialization during the first five-year plan, the collectivization of agriculture, and the repression of allegedly wealthy—but often simply oppositional—peasants at the end of the 1920s set the stage for an industrial command economy that usually prioritized increasing production over other social and ecological goals. It entrenched the logic of continual capital accumulation in the Soviet version of state socialism.

But the embrace of this program of rapid industrialization was not an inevitable response stemming from either capitalist and imperialist encirclement or socialist ideology. It was a much-debated and much-contested move, with many in the Soviet leadership expressing oppositional stances that drew on the rich tradition of radical leftist thought in Russia, which was then in the process of foreclosing into a single party line. Of those ecological thinkers who were against the turn to Stalinist industrialization (from Marxist and other socialist positions), many ended up executed by the secret police in 1937–38, along with thousands of committed Communist Party members and targeted ethnic groups. Many factors are needed to explain the triumph of the “socialism in one country” approach associated with breakneck industrialization, but for those concerned about the future biophysical integrity of the planet, the main takeaway from this experience is rather simple: it is what is not to be done.

After the Soviet victory over the Nazis in the Second World War and the entrenchment of the Cold War, the USSR embraced a suite of policies called the Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Long-derided as an emblem of Prometheanism and stained by its association with crank agronomist Trofim Lysenko, the plan has recently undergone reconsideration by scholars who note the centrality of afforestation efforts in its programs and its goal of combating famine.12 The success of the Soviet Union in feeding its population in the second half of the twentieth century should not be overlooked, despite the agricultural difficulties of the collective and state farm sectors and the lethal mass famines that had earlier afflicted Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and the Volga region, for which the reprehensible actions of the regime bore major responsibility.13 From the 1960s to the 1980s, robust environmentalist policies, movements, laws, and sensibilities blossomed, as Engel-Di Mauro rightly points out. Yet this shift can hardly be taken as a significant environmental success. In aggregate, negative environmental impacts often increased over this period despite greater concern about environmental issues, and in the best cases, only started to moderate in the twilight of collapse. One only needs to consider the pervasive environmental sensibilities that accompany mounting environmental pressures today to understand that ecological consciousness is no guarantee for reduced environmental degradation.

Given the resemblance of the Soviet trajectory to that of many other countries, an observer might be tempted to highlight a convergence between Soviet state socialism and industrial capitalism on environmental matters. Though Engel-Di Mauro sees scholarship that makes this move as a clear improvement over work that overstates the Soviet contribution to global environmental problems and downplays the role of capitalism, he scolds adherents for alleged complicity with the dominant political powers of today. “Treating socialist states as analogues of ‘modernity’ is a politically evasive and disabling maneuver,” he writes, “dissembling relational differentiation and major unevenness in power relations, while collapsing widely differing social and historical conditions into an undifferentiated ‘modernity’ porridge.”14 Other scholars’ references to modernity and modernization may benefit from specification and reframing, but overcoming the past convergence of industrial forms of both capitalism and state socialism remains a major need for combating ecosystem destruction. Visions that fail to pay heed to the limitations of insatiably expanding industrial economies risk embracing paths that might foreclose the possibility of ever establishing sustainable relationships with the natural world. The recent flirtation of segments of the socialist left with the technological fantasies of ecomodernism—despite its firmly pro-business origins—speaks to the continued relevance of this standpoint.15

Differential power relations within the Soviet Union have also been subject to greater scrutiny in this scholarship than Engel-Di Mauro acknowledges. The imperial dimensions of the Soviet efforts to forge a new type of state intersected with environmental issues at many different moments. The complexities that characterized relationships among the multiethnic peoples in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are difficult to state briefly, but a fair summary includes the dominance of Russians over non-Russians at most times and in most arenas. The Soviet approach to irrigation in the Aral Sea basin, as the late Maya Peterson has shown, depended on imperial legacies of the Tsarist period.16 Kazakhs in Central Asia and Nenets on the island of Novaya Zemlya were disproportionately affected by the testing of nuclear weapons—a comparable situation to the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the United States.17 One of the most successful environmental efforts in the late Soviet period—the protection of Lake Baikal—owed much to the nationalist imagination of the waterbody as part of Russia’s natural heritage.18

Within the world system of the twentieth century, Engel-Di Mauro stresses the “positive environmental impacts” of state-socialist countries, including the Soviet Union. These include creating nature reserves that saved species from the brink of extinction, limiting mass consumerism, and advocating for international environmental agreements. “That so many environmental benefits were achieved in a rapidly industrializing country under such general strains testifies to the usefulness of the socialist state in mitigating environmental harm while raising the standards of living in what was initially an overwhelmingly deprived agrarian society.” But what is a so-called positive impact on the environment? Lowering pollution, for instance, is certainly a less negative environmental impact than the alternative, but can it be said that “the environmental record shows that the net impacts of socialist states have been positive”? The latter implies improvement for the environment. This is not a matter of mere terminological nitpicking. The positive sides of state-socialist environmental performance were largely less damaging, but should not be mistaken for enhancing the biophysical conditions for the flourishing of Earth’s numerous species. Doing less damage is not environmental improvement. Engel-Di Mauro’s argument implies that, since these places likely would have had worse environmental records under capitalism, the rule of a state-socialist regime must have a positive impact. This hypothetical reasoning has value in seeing alternative possibilities, but it does not add up to the claim that state-socialist countries turned the tide on the global environmental crisis, even in the territories where they ruled.19

Appreciating that mimicry of the past is insufficient for the future, Engel-Di Mauro concludes with a reflection on how to engage with the ecosocial experiences of state-socialist countries dialectically. A key point here is the need to see social and environmental struggles as entwined and mutually reinforcing, as well as distinct and multifaceted. The dual work of creating “egalitarian, classless, state-free communities” and developing “life-promoting” ecological practices that “avoid harming other species” should be pursued in tandem, as it can “not be taken for granted” that one will “seamlessly flow into the other.” Wary of endless fighting and polarizing positions on the left, Engel-Di Mauro encourages support for variegated socialist efforts—even imperfect ones—wherever they seem to sprout. 20

An additional lesson from the environmental history of state socialism for ecosocialist efforts today concerns the imperative for economic growth. Where socialist states mirrored the logic of unending economic expansion in the capitalist world (following a fair, or at least widespread, reading of Marxism that views history as unfolding in a series of stages), they tended to dramatically despoil the environment. Where socialist states followed more sustainable practices, such as nature conservation, recycling, ecological monitoring, strict regulations, and aiming for sufficient conditions for living well (instead of ever-increasing and evermore intensive consumption of material resources), they offered possible environmental paths for the future. The fraught struggles within the left in Ecuador over extractivism in the twenty-first century portend the continued salience of the problem of growth economies for ecosocialist efforts.21 While ecosocialists and current advocates of degrowth have not always seen eye-to-eye, Engel-Di Mauro has played a significant role in helping bridge these divides by hosting two discussion forums on degrowth ideas in Capitalism Nature Socialism in 2012 and 2019. Judging from his editorials, he became more open to the possibility for a unification of these two approaches over the interim.22 Though degrowth perspectives barely feature in the analysis of Socialist States and the Environment, one hopes that he and other ecosocialists might be willing to engage with them explicitly on the question of what we should learn from past leftist efforts to fight for social equality and environmental integrity.

Endnotes

  1. Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly, Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege (New York: Basic, 1992), 1.
  2. Books that have tended to stress Soviet distinctiveness, include Douglas Weiner, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Douglas Weiner, A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Brian Bonhomme, Forests, Peasants, and Revolutionaries: Forest Conservation and Organization in Soviet Russia, 1917–1929 (Boulder: East European Monographs, 2005); Paul Josephson et. al., An Environmental History of Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Cynthia Ruder, Building Stalinism: The Moscow Canal and the Creation of Soviet Space (London: I. B. Tauris, 2018). Books that emphasize comparative connections between the Soviet Union and other parts of the world include Jonathan Oldfield, Russian Nature: Exploring the Environmental Consequences of Societal Change (Burlington: Ashgate, 2005); Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Andy Bruno, The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Nicholas Breyfogle, ed., Eurasian Environments: Nature and Ecology in Imperial Russian and Soviet History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018); Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019); Mieka Erley, On Russian Soil: Myth and Materiality (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2021); David Moon, Nicholas Breyfogle, and Alexandra Bekasova, eds., Place and Nature: Essays in Russian Environmental History (Cambridgeshire: White Horse, 2021); Ryan Tucker Jones, Red Leviathan: The Soviet Union and the Secret Destruction of the World’s Whales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022).
  3. Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest: Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905–1953 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011).
  4. John Bellamy Foster, “Late Soviet Ecology and the Planetary Crisis,” Monthly Review 67, no. 2 (June 2015): 13.
  5. Laurent Coumel and Marc Elie, “A Belated and Tragic Ecological Revolution: Nature, Disasters, and Green Activists in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet States, 1960s–2010s,” The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 40, no. 2 (2013): 157–65.
  6. Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures (Pluto: London, 2021), 9.
  7. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, xii, xiv.
  8. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 58, 68.
  9. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 32, 95, 100.
  10. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 144, 170, 179.
  11. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 139.
  12. Stephen Brain, “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature,” Environmental History 15, no. 4 (2010): 670–700; Jenny Leigh Smith, Works in Progress: Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms, 1930–1963 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Denis J. B. Shaw, “Mastering Nature through Science: Soviet Geographers and the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, 1948–53,” The Slavonic and East European Review 93, no. 1 (2015): 120–24.
  13. Nikolai M. Dronin and Edward G. Bellinger, Climate Dependence and Food Problems in Russia 1900–1990 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2005); Hiroaki Kuromiya, “The Soviet Famine of 1932–1933 Reconsidered.” Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 4 (2008): 663–75; Sarah Cameron, The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).
  14. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 200.
  15. For example, see many of the articles in Jacobin 26 (2017). For a critique of this trend, see John Bellamy Foster, “The Long Ecological Revolution,” Monthly Review 69, no. 6 (November 2017): 1–16.
  16. Maya Peterson, Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia’s Aral Sean Basin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
  17. Magdalena Stawkowski, “‘I am a Radioactive Mutant’: Emerging Biological Subjectivities at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site,” American Ethnologist 43, no. 1 (2016): 144–57; Dmitry Arzyutov, “Reassembling the Environmental Archive of the Cold War: Perceptions from the Russian North” (PhD diss., KTH Royal Institute of Technology, 2021).
  18. Nicholas Breyfogle, “At the Watershed: 1958 and the Beginnings of Lake Baikal Environmentalism,” The Slavonic and East European Review 93, no. 1 (2015): 147–80; Kate Pride Brown, Saving the Sacred Sea: The Power of Civil Society in an Age of Authoritarianism and Globalization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  19. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 9, 29, 143–44, 195.
  20. Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment, 205, 208–9, 219, 224.
  21. Thea Riofrancos, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
  22. Saed, “Introduction to the Degrowth Symposium,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 23, no. 1 (2012): 26–29; Diego Andreucci and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, “Capitalism, Socialism, and the Challenge of Degrowth: Introduction to the Symposium,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2 (2019): 176–88. For a recent effort to continue this dialogue, see Michael Löwy, Bengi Akbulut, Sabrina Fernandes, and Giorgos Kallis, “For an Ecosocialist Degrowth,” Monthly Review 73, no. 11 (April 2022).
2022, Volume 74, Number 04 (September 2022)
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