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Russian Literature LXX (2011) I/II




No other philosophy concerned Andrei Belyi as much as Kants epistemology. No
other philosophy evoked in him such diverse and indeed emotional reactions. This
can be observed in Belyis oeuvre. By following the traces of Kant in his writing, it
is not only possible to portray the evolution of Belyis thinking, but also to decode
the construction of the novel Peterburg. This article aims to outline Belyis complex
preoccupation with Kant from its inception in 1902 until the 1920s, when the
Istoriia stanovleniia samosoznaiushchei dushi (ISSD) was written.
Keywords: Belyi; Istoriia stanovleniia samosoznaiushchei dushi; Kant

Immanuel Kants epistemology, indeed even the personality of the great

Knigsberg philosopher, which of course cannot be entirely separated from
his thought, were a constant vexation for Andrej Belyj. Kant, Belyj declared
in exasperation in 1908 (Belyj 1969a: 215), was himself the eighth bookcase
alongside the seven already present in his library. He went on to ask ironically, ? For
the symbolist Belyj, epistemology was abstract armchair philosophy, divorced from living reality. And yet Kants work did more than merely rile Belyj.
It also enriched his thought, ultimately guiding him towards an approach in
which self-awareness was to play a central role. It was precisely the vexing
nature of transcendental philosophy that distinguished it from outdated

0304-3479/$ see front matter 2011 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Andrea Zink

theories that appeared to hold no relevance for modernism, however coherent

and historically valuable they may have been. Although dead for 100 years,
Kant had once more become highly topical in Russia at the turn of the
century, as well as in Germany where Neo-Kantians revived his ideas. 1 In his
engagement with Kantian thought, Belyj coincided with, amongst others,
Pavel Florenskij, 2 and prefigured a number of Russian thinkers of the early
20th century such as the phenomenologist Gustav pet. 3 With its Kantian
pirouettes, Belyjs aesthetics differed considerably from the writing of his
fellow symbolists Aleksandr Blok and Vjaeslav Ivanov, who were drawn to
Nietzsche rather than Kants transcendental philosophy.
So why does Belyj pursue a different path? Merekovskij and the
Russian Symbolists found a vindication for their poetics in Goethes
statement that All that is transitory is but a metaphor (Goethe 1972: 364). It
was not very likely that they would be drawn to Kants epistemology, which
ascribes purely speculative value to the metaphorical nature of all things
transitory. By his own admission, Belyjs interest in Kant can be traced back
to a very specific occasion, which resulted in a sense of wounded pride. In
1902, Belyj gave a presentation on the forms of art 4 at the Student Philological Society in Moscow. Following the lecture, he was told by illustrious
guests, among them Vladimir rn, that he lacked adequate knowledge, in
particular regarding the Neo-Kantian concept of form (Belyj 1923: leaf 32).
Goaded on by this slur on his erudition, Belyj set about redressing the deficiency. He would begin his studies with the father of Neo-Kantianism
Kant himself. 5
Belyjs reception of Kant in the years up to the 1920s, i.e. until the
genesis of Istorija stanovlenija samosoznajuej dui (ISSD), shall be traced
in the following, with the focus falling on Belyjs aesthetics. The novel
Peterburg will also be touched upon, representing as it does a philosophical
masterpiece of especial brisance.
In Belyjs aesthetics, which is irritating and provoking when taken as a
whole, 6 a number of discrete stages can be distinguished. These stages reflect
an extremely heterogeneous reception of Kants philosophy. I shall begin by
exploring this evolution, concentrating chiefly on the phase in which Belyj
and Kant have most in common.
Ignominiously accused of ignorance, Belyj set out to read the Critique
of Pure Reason (Belyj 1923: 40). As an artist, he may have had more luck
with the Critique of Judgment. But he chose to bypass the latter and cut
straight to the nitty-gritty. The Critique of Pure Reason contains passages that
must have been interesting for Belyj as a symbolist poet. In particular, he
encountered Kants elaboration of the transcendental aesthetic, in which the
German philosopher discusses the human faculty for intuition, and its capacity and limitations. The Russian Symbolists, too, sought to elevate sensibility over the pragmatic rationality that had dominated the latter half of the 19th

Andrej Belyj and Immanuel Kant


century. For Kant, however, the possibilities of intuition are limited. Belyj,
on the contrary, believed it to possess much greater potential. Like Goethes
Faust, Belyj wanted to discover the transcendental through experience (Belyj
1969b: 29). As a result, he ignored the distinction, so crucial to Kants methodology, between appearance and the thing-in-itself. Belyj saw the thingin-itself as the essence of the appearance and not, as Kant intended, as a limit
to human knowledge (24-25). He thus espoused precisely that traditional,
metaphysical approach which Kant wanted to shake to its dogmatic foundations. Through sensibility, Belyj believed, we are capable of experiencing the
supersensible (divine). This stance contained something of Solovevs hope
for a religious renewal of the world. 7 Art, knowledge and religion merged
into one. There is nothing in Kants philosophy to support these visions, and
indeed Belyj is merciless in his critique of Kant in his early writings. It may
then come as a surprise to the uninitiated reader just how often, and how
vigorously, he draws on epistemology despite its alleged weaknesses.
Around 1905, however, a shift in Belyjs thought becomes apparent.
This may have been effected by external events, specifically the first Russian
Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War. Grand speculations regarding the
future were no longer the order of the day. Whatever the case, Belyjs confidence that the world could change for the better began to wane. His interest
in the metaphorical nature of the transitory gave way to an interest in inner,
subjective processes. The noumenal significance of external objects was no
longer important, and he turned his attention instead to the poets mind and
technical abilities (195-203). It is during this phase of theoretical exploration
that Andrej Belyj as theorist has most in common with Immanuel Kant.
Belyj continues to be concerned with synthetic creation, but he finds
this synthesis elsewhere (31): becomes the new catchword.
Belyj recognises that Kant himself was concerned not merely with establishing the limits to human knowledge. He understands that Kant wanted to go
beyond the truth of analytical judgments to determine the conditions of a
priori synthetic judgments. After all, Kant presents the complex interplay of
understanding and sensibility as a synthesizing activity, irrespective of experience and subject to the business of imagination. It is in this context that
Andrej Belyj eagerly seizes on Kants transcendental aesthetic, particularly
the chapter on the schematism of pure concepts of understanding. His new
symbolist aesthetic now appears to the reader to be an addendum to Kant:
[] ,
. ,
, , . .


Andrea Zink
. (205-206; Belyjs emphasis A.Z.)

This definition would appear to cast Kant as the symbolist par excellence a
symbolist in the broadest sense with the great masters artistic disciples
figuring only as symbolists in the narrower sense. Indeed, Belyj goes so far as
to regard himself as Kants heir in the realm of aesthetics. Analogously to
Kants formulation of the conditions for the possibility of knowledge, Belyj
wants to develop a theory of symbolism in order to identify the conditions for
the possibility of artistic creation.
, , , ( ,
), .

Belyj is unable to deliver the goods on this ambitious project. However, in his
essay Smysl iskusstva (1907: 195-230) he suggests a wide range of models
governing the creative process in general, and artistic creation in particular.
All of these models consist of the interplay between internal experience and
external nature (material), and culminate in the unity of a work of art (213219). With the aid of three categories (the work of art, the material or form,
and the inner experience of the artist, symbolized in three letters a, b, and c),
Belyj formalizes his model for artistic creation and sums up diverse artistic
epochs. Interestingly, he defines the creative process of the symbolist artist as
follows: a symbolist draws primarily on inner experience,
(c); he subordinates the material (b) to this experience, and the unity of the
work (a) is no longer recognised, but only sensed (216). The shift in Belyjs
aesthetics could also be articulated as follows: the symbol gives way to symbolic representation; the noumenal world is replaced by artistic activity.
At the same time as articulating his symbolist theory, and again in
keeping with Kant, Belyj begins to compose rigorously formal literary studies. Scholars have seen these as precursors to Russian Formalism. 8 Belyj
now becomes interested in the fabricated nature, rather than the transcendental aspect, of art. Key criteria for this reflection on the artistic technique
were the Kantian pure forms of intuition, space and time. A certain preference was given to time as inner sense, determining not only all external objects but also self-awareness. Ne poj, krasavica, pri mne A. S. Pukina. Opyt
opisanija (1909: 396-428) is a study which, like Smysl iskusstva, may be
considered a product of Belyjs engagement with Kant. The dominance of
time is particularly clear in Belyjs masterful exploration of Pushkinian

Andrej Belyj and Immanuel Kant


Nevertheless, Belyjs love affair with Kant soon struck a somewhat

sour note. Belyj could not fail to notice that Kant had described the activity of
the imagination as purely formal, however intuitable the term appeared. For
Kant, the content of knowledge and the activity of the reflecting subject
remain empirical, and contingent on the given (Kant 1990: 33-36, 273-276).
Belyjs , on the other hand, had always tended to lay claim to
a content of its own. 9 It took therefore no long time until the act of experiencing became an act of creating.
Around 1908, Belyj began to draw particularly heavily on the NeoKantian Heinrich Rickert. Rickerts Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis (Rickert
1904) provided Belyj with the concepts of the content of consciousness
(Bewutseinsinhalt) and affirmation of judgment (Urteilsbejahung),
terms of which the symbolist theorist proceeded to make liberal use. Unlike
Rickert, Belyj generally continued to adhere to Kants subject-object structure. On one side of the equation remained the self of the artist, and on the
other the manifold of appearances. However, thanks to Rickert, Belyj is able
to invest the self with content by reading the content of consciousness as the
content of self-awareness (Belyj 1969a: 245-246). The original, formal synthesis of with artistic material is reinterpreted as creation.
The artist thus emerges as a demiurge, a life-affirming yeasayer, the destroyer
of old worlds and producer of new (151-153). There are clear points of
contact here with Nietzsches philosophy, to which Belyj was also attracted
at the time (60-90). Meanwhile, Belyj increasingly comes to reject Kants
simple scheme, finding it too rigid for his purposes (215). In 1912, Belyj
went so far as to compare Kant and his epigones with tarantulas (1912: 73).
The image is borrowed from Nietzsches Thus Spoke Zarathustra and
represents stagnation, the levelling out of all differences, and the obstruction
of creation (Nietzsche 1993: 128-131). Belyj reiterated his accusation a few
years later, maintaining that Kant, like a levelling tarantula, had even infected
Nietzsches thought (1920: 55). The only mark that Kants epistemology left
on Belyjs worldview at this time can be seen in the continuing centrality of
the authority of the self to his thought. This would, in time, lead to a final, not
insignificant reconciliation between Belyj and Kant, a reconciliation that
proves crucial to ISSD.
Before this turning point occurs, however, Belyj commits to paper his
artistic response to Kant. In his novel Peterburg, Belyj manages to accommodate in a single work all the stages of his reception of Kant, including
some extremely heterogeneous theoretical positions indeed. The structural
possibilities of the novel allow him to create a dialogue between diverse
philosophical standpoints. He confronts Kant with Nietzsche, Kant with his
Neo-Kantian epigones, and, finally, Kant with his Russian disciples, headed
by the author Belyj himself. 10 Just as Kant finds the conditions for the
possibility of knowledge in the subjects consciousness, it is above all


Andrea Zink

through the novels different planes of consciousness that Belyj sets in motion his philosophical dialogue.
Firstly, the consciousness of a character, the idle cerebral play of the
philosophy student and Kant scholar Nikolaj Apollonovi Ableuchov shows
the assets and drawbacks of transcendental philosophy. In keeping with Kant,
Nikolaj Apollonovi elevates himself to the centre of knowledge; space and
time are founded, in accordance with Kant, in his consciousness. But the
narrator never tires of pointing out that Nikolaj Apollonovi is more than a
Kantian, he is apparently going one step further a Cohenian (Belyj 1981:
236). With this reference to Hermann Cohen, Belyj is highlighting the
abstract character of Nikolajs thought. Unlike Kant, the Marburg Neo-Kantian Cohen regarded space and time as categories, relating them to the
understanding, not the faculty for intuition (Cohen 1902: 127-140, 165-174).
In this way, Nikolaj Ableuchov does not consider himself to be connected to
his environment through sensibility, as a real Kantian would. On the contrary,
the manifold of appearances has no bearing on his thought at all. In his study,
where he likes to lock himself in, he is transformed into a source of logical
premises [...] which determined thought, the soul and this table right here.
, ,
. (Belyj 1981: 45)

Nikolaj Ableuchov relishes exercising this subjective control over space and
time in the novels first chapter, but soon loses it as events (and the text) take
their course. Belyj highlights the dangers of such an extreme Neo-Kantian
position, as well as the hermetic nature of transcendental philosophy in general, using leitmotifs and, in particular, a number of refrains in the novels last
chapter and epilogue.

, :
, ;
. : .

Ultimately, this technique even aligns Nikolajs Kantianism with the dubious
behaviour of the provocateur Lippanenko. Kants philosophy becomes akin
to terrorism. One way in which Belyj makes it apparent that Kants philosophy is involved in murderous plans is through the deliberate application,
and deliberate distortion, of Kantian transcendental apperception. Transcen-

Andrej Belyj and Immanuel Kant


dental apperception is ridiculed through its metaphorical reduction to pepper

in a dialogue between father and son. At the same time, this passage underscores the emptiness of abstract self-awareness (1981: 118). Belyj is consistent in his illustration of the emptiness of this central Kantian doctrine. Nikolaj can think of nothing to add to a concise verbal expression of
apperception. As important as this I may be in a theoretical system, it
appears ridiculous in real life. Thus, Nikolaj not only experiences the abysses
within himself (183-184), but also anticipates the nullity of other subjects. He
reflects, not without relish, that a roof tile falling at an inopportune moment
could just obliterate the logical centre of his father Apollon Apollonovi
While on the one hand transcendental conditions prove to be unfit for
the real world, Belyj also questions the true nature of their opposite appearances. Appearances are not what they appear; they are, in fact, something
else. In Peterburg, Belyj enacts a secular caricature of the revolt of the thingin-itself, the resistance of an essence to which he had some years previously
ascribed divine dimensions. The most striking example of such things is
undoubtedly the sardine-tin of terrible import ( ), an outwardly harmless object which, as it soon transpires, has a
second dimension. The tin contains a bomb. The Kantian Nikolaj is increasingly confronted by this thing-in-itself; it penetrates his head from outside, even taking control of his thoughts (314).
But Belyj would not be Belyj were he content with a critique of Kant
and of a philosophy which had occupied, and sometimes even inspired, him
over the years. In fact, we discover a real Kantian in the philosophical supersymbol that is the novel Peterburg: Like Nikolaj Ableuchov, the narrator lays
claim to the transcendental conditions of time and space since he directs and
comments on the reporting of events. But he is more entitled to do this than
Nikolaj. For the narrator, time and space are forms of intuition which require
their content to be supplied from the outside. The narrator has control over
the presentation of time. At the words at once he can stop just as he pleases
(32). But he has no control over the events themselves. The narrator is continuously obliged to deal with unexpected facts and adjust his agenda, as he
himself remarks (37). Quite in keeping with Kant, he adapts to the manifold
of appearances. And in this method, particularly with regard to the controlling of time, the author himself supports him. With tactical manoeuvres
that frustrate the logical narrative flow, Belyj consciously brings out the Kantian terrorist. 11 Put simply, Belyj calls Kants philosophy into question in an
absolutely Kantian manner, that is, through a masterfully administered, subjective control of time.
Taken as a whole, we may add that even the quasi-mathematical construction of the novel suggests the influence of epistemology. Peterburg is a
figment of the imagination. The avant-garde manner in which Belyj re-


Andrea Zink

peatedly lays bare his artistic method is likewise reminiscent of Kants emphasis on the conditions of knowledge. If we consider, on the other hand, that
Peterburg is a reservoir of culture, a collection of quotations taken from the
authors rich store of experience, Kant may also prevail in terms of content.
Belyj basks in the manifold of aesthetic, historical and political appearances.
He, the author-subject, is only responsible for the novels form. And from
this point of view, Peterburg can be seen as a compact and creative realization of the Kantian transcendental philosophy. The novel is a philosophical
provocation and, not least, an insistent debate with transcendental philosophy
conducted by its very self. But Belyj does not stop even at this truly symbolist solution.
The former symbolist undergoes a creative crisis. This is triggered in
part by global events, in particular the First World War and the Russian
Revolution, but also by his personal meeting with Rudolf Steiner and his
separation from Asja Turgeneva. Belyj becomes increasingly withdrawn. No
longer concerned with creation, he abandons the project of constructing a
theory of symbolism, his artistic output wanes, and autobiographical and
philosophical texts that clearly show the influence of anthroposophy begin to
dominate his writing. It is in this context that Belyjs interest in Kants
Critique of Pure Reason is reawakened. 12 Belyj begins to discuss an aspect
he had heretofore woefully neglected: the categories and transcendental
apperception the logical point of reference for the entire cognitive process.
The prominent position accorded to the self by Kant in his Critique is entirely
in keeping with Belyjs intentions. Belyj argues, however, and not without
justification, that Kant neglected to question the logical conditions for his
epistemology, relying somewhat credulously on Aristotle. 13 Furthermore, a
number of astral journeys undertaken by residents of Peterburg give an early
intimation of this development: their consciousness has a pre-history. 14 From
now on, Belyj sticks to this position, which proves to be surprisingly sound.
A few years later, in ISSD, Belyj writes:
; ; ,
, :
. (ISSD, Part III, Chapter Simvol very i znanija v samosoznanii)

Belyj also recognises an antecedent (synthetic) unity of thought in the Kantian scheme, a unity which had been postulated by Kant but whose foundations he had failed to question:
( ); :
, ,

Andrej Belyj and Immanuel Kant


: , . (ISSD, Part III, Chapter

Tema v variacijach: muzyka; Belyjs emphasis A.Z.)

Conspicuous here is not only the shift in emphasis the scheme is now a sign
of wholeness, not a concept of creation but also the new tone. Belyj now
respects Kants philosophy. 15 At the same time, by dropping his old polemic,
he is able to incorporate key points of criticism. The vexatious Kant had
disappeared. Belyjs critique of Kant now appears more solid than in previous years. Belyj highlights the possibility of an experience of the mind, an
intellectual intuition (which for Kant is the prerogative of God alone) (1922:
16), and, finally, a pre-history of consciousness. As a result, in Belyjs view
the Kantian scheme implies a temporality that Kant himself had not discovered (18-19; ISSD, Part III, Chapter Princip, kak tema v variacijach).16
Out of this temporality and this history, self-awareness imparts an intuition
and, through immersion in the self, it becomes possible to comprehend the
experience of all of humanity (1922: 16).
This development in Belyjs thought originates around 1916 when he
specifically sets about bringing to light the weak points of the Critique of
Pure Reason. He is aided in this by Rudolf Steiner, who is also at least in
the early stages of his thought at home philosophically in Kantian epistemology.17 To begin with, Belyj cautiously questions the preconditions of pure
logic and postulates the trans-individual origin of thought. He sees a shadow
of this in the purposiveness of knowledge, erroneously understood in gnoseology as merely the drawing of boundaries (1916a: 74; 1916b: 14). It is only a
small step from here for Belyj to intuit an historical rhythm in the self (19201921: 3). Out of this interpretation, borrowed from Steiners cosmology, Kant
is acknowledged once again. In Belyjs view, the achievement of the Knigsberg philosopher should not be underestimated. However, Kant had only
grasped one part of cognition, one moment in the history of knowledge:
(ISSD, Part III 3, Chapter Transformizm). Belyj is no longer satisfied with just this one part. However, two
years later he still declares epistemology to be the point of departure for his
anthroposophy, and considers Kant and Steiner the main sources of his inspiration (Belyj 1928: 9). After all the years of polemic, criticism and fleeting
enthusiasm, Belyjs relationship to Kant now seems to have arrived at a
certain peace. No philosophy occupied Belyj for longer or more intensively
than Kants epistemology. Never again did he engage in philosophical reflection at a more intense or profound level.


Andrea Zink




This topicality extended back to the 19th century (Nemeth 1992).

See for example his text Reverse perspective (Florenskij 1989), in which
Florenskij argues against the central perspective that had dominated European
art ever since the Renaissance, and which was closely linked to Euclidean
geometry and Kantian philosophy. He commends instead the breaches of
perspective that are typical of icon painting. Florenskij favours a worldview
(and a form of painting) that shifts the focus from the viewer to the perceived
and symbolized reality. He sees instances of this alternative worldview in the
mathematicians Kantor, Hilbert and Peano, with their geometrical proofs, as
well as in the non-Euclidean geometry (e.g. Lobaevskij) that was generally in
vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. Florenskij may also have considered the art of the avant-garde to represent a corroboration of his ideas.
Cf. the review of the reception of Neo-Kantianism, ventured as early as 1909,
by Nikolaj Berdjaev (Berdjaev 1990: 67-68).
On the beginnings of Neo-Kantianism in Russia and the influence of
Aleksandr I. Vvedenskij, see Thomas Nemeth (Nemeth 1998; 1999).
Cf. Tihanov (2009).
The presentation was later included in the collection Simvolizm under the title
Formy iskusstva (Belyj 1969b: 147-174).
Belyj notes in ISSD that it was already considered de rigueur to argue along
Kantian lines in the early 20th century. He also believes that reading
Schopenhauer had paved the way for a more intense reception of Kant among
Russian intellectuals (ISSD, Part II, Chapter Kant).
This provocation is achieved through constant contradictions in the argumentation of two of his books, and the presentation of the most heterogeneous
models of symbolism in three others (Simvolizm, Arabeski, Lug zelenyj). This
may explain why no one has ventured to translate these works. Only a few
individual essays have been translated into German. These include
Simvolizm kak miroponimanie and pokalipsis v russkoj pozii (translated as Symbolismus als Weltverstndnis and Die Apokalypse in der
russischen Poesie by Fritz and Sieglinde Mierau; 1994: 85-109; 110-131). It
should, however, be noted that Belyjs magnificent, late literary criticism
(which even earned Nabokovs approbation) has recently been translated into
English (Belyj 2009).
This hope is perhaps most clearly expressed in Solovevs War, Progress and
the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Tale of the
See Erlich (1987: 40-45); Striedter (1966: 277-278); Holthusen (1957: 26).
See for example Belyj (1969b: 205 f.) where he defines as
the .
For an in-depth discussion of the philosophical games in the novel and in
Belyjs aesthetics, see my dissertation (Zink 1998). On the role of Neo-

Andrej Belyj and Immanuel Kant




Kantianism in Peterburg, see West (1991). Rezvych explores the philosophical traces of Belyjs novel Serebrjanyj golub, the Eastern antithesis to
Peterburg (Rezvych 2001).
See in particular the unusual placement of the subheading The plan (1981:
This interest was purely personal. As Belyj himself saw it, the Kantian
philosophy had actually more or less ceased to be topical after the First World
War (ISSD, Part II, Chapter Kant).
Cf. in particular the chapter Moe otnoenie k Kantu in Osnovy moego
mirovozzrenija (Belyj 1922: 6-10).
On this subject, cf. Maria Carlson (2005).
He also pays homage to the seriousness with which Kant approached his work
(ISSD, Part II, Chapter Kant).
Belyjs interpretation here anticipates Heideggers reading of Kant (Heidegger
This philosophical home can be detected for instance in Steiners Philosophy
of Freedom (see Steiner 1962), which based on his dissertation Wahrheit und
Wissenschaft. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Freiheit (Steiner 1958). In
ISSD, Belyj particularly emphasises Steiners reading of Kant. He endorses
Steiners interpretation (ISSD, Part II, Chapter Kant) and states that Kants
plans had been completed by Steiner with respect to a synthesis of practical
and theoretical reason (ISSD, Part III, Chapter Poznanie i uvstvo v samopoznanii).

Belyj, Andrej
Krugovoe dvienie. Trudy i dni, 4/5, 51-73.
Problema znanija i poznanija. RGALI, f. 53., op. 1, no. 58.
O smysle poznanija. http://bugayeff.narod.ru/de_sensu_cognitionis.pdf (printed version: O smysle poznanija [1916]. Russian
Language Specialties, Russian Study Series, No. 51. Chicago, 1965,
Na perevale. Petrograd.
1920-1921 Krizis soznanija. RGALI, f. 53, op. 1, no. 64.
Osnovy moego mirovozzrenija. RGALI, f. 53, op. 1, no. 69
(printed version in: Literaturnoe obozrenie, 1995, 4/5, 13-37).
Material k biografii (intimnyj). RGALI, f. 53, op. 2, no. 3.
ISSD. Istorija stanovlenija samosoznajuej dui. Manuscript held
in Otdel rukopisej, Rossijskaja Gosudarstvennaja Biblioteka (fond
25, 45/1 and 45/2).



Andrea Zink

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