The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800

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It is an era that redefined history. As the 1790s began, a fragile America teetered on the brink of oblivion, Russia towered as a vast imperial power, and France plunged into monumental revolution. But none of these remarkable events occurred in isolation. In The Great Upheaval, acclaimed historian Jay Winik masterfully illuminates how their fates combined in one extraordinary moment to change the course of civilization.

Winik brings his vast, meticulous research and narrative ...

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It is an era that redefined history. As the 1790s began, a fragile America teetered on the brink of oblivion, Russia towered as a vast imperial power, and France plunged into monumental revolution. But none of these remarkable events occurred in isolation. In The Great Upheaval, acclaimed historian Jay Winik masterfully illuminates how their fates combined in one extraordinary moment to change the course of civilization.

Winik brings his vast, meticulous research and narrative genius to the cold, dark battlefields and deadly clashes of ideologies that defined this age. Here is a savage world war, the toppling of a great dynasty, and an America struggling to survive at home and abroad. Here, too, is the first modern Holy War between Islam and a resurgent Christian empire. And here is the richest cast of characters ever to walk upon the world stage: Washington and Jefferson, Louis XVI and Robespierre, Catherine the Great, Adams, Napoleon, and Selim III. Exquisitely written and utterly compelling, The Great Upheaval vividly depicts an arc of revolutionary fervor stretching from Philadelphia and Paris to St. Petersburg and Cairo—with fateful results. A landmark in historical literature, Winik's gripping, epic portrait of this tumultuous decade will forever transform the way we see America's beginnings and our world.

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Editorial Reviews

The Boston Globe
Ambitious. . . An authoritative study. . . . Intriguing.
The Los Angeles Times Book Review
The Great Upheaval vividly recaptures the ferment of the 1790s. . . . A vigorous work of popular history. . . . Winik has capably synthesized a great deal of material into a lively narrative depicting the remarkable 12 years that did, indeed, give birth to the modern world.
Joseph J. Ellis
Winik is a master of the character study, and although his book is based almost entirely on secondary sources, he has an uncanny knack for synthesizing the work of others, then imposing his own distinctive mark…as a born storyteller, he privileges the personal. If you want a comparative analysis of the revolutionary movements in America and Europe, you should look elsewhere. If you want to understand, intellectually and emotionally, what it was like to experience this historic upheaval, this is the book for you.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The years 1788 to 1800 must be numbered among the most tumultuous in history, as bestselling author Winik (April 1865) magnificently demonstrates in this aptly titled book. The nascent United States, tormented by three rebellions of its own, tottered as France descended into bloody terror and imperial Russia fought the Ottomans. Republicanism, liberalism, democracy, nationalism, as well as authoritarianism: all these potent ideologies, whose effects remain with us, sprouted from this fertile soil.

The emphasis on Russian and French affairs marks Winik as being in the forefront of a growing campaign to globalize America's national history: to view "the larger age" and frame the story as "one continuous, interlocking narrative" rather than to focus myopically on events in the United States. "The world then was far more interconnected than we realize," Winik writes. "[G]reat nations and leaders were acutely conscious of one another."

In this version, Washington, Jefferson and Adams no longer receive exclusive star billing, but instead share the stage with such greats as the Empress Catherine, the doomed Louis XVI, Robespierre, Napoleon and Kosciuszko. If there is a criticism to be made of this approach, it is that Winik has greatly underplayed the importance of Britain in the struggle for global mastery and the quest for international order.

Buttressed by impeccable research, vividly narrated and deftly organized, this is popular history of the highest order and is sure to create a stir in the fall market. 16 pages of b&w photos, 3 maps. (Sept. 11)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this popular history of America, France, and Russia during the last decade of the 18th century, Winik (senior scholar, Sch. of Public Policy, Univ. of Maryland, College Park; April 1865) truly brings the age alive. Each chapter addresses one of these countries (the Ottoman Empire also surely deserved its own chapters instead of containment within the Russian chapter) but always weaves in perspectives relating to the others. Throughout, Winik offers dramatic flair without sacrificing fact. Readers will quickly get absorbed in the drama of America's early republic, not simply in isolation but in relation to the horrible war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The darkest hours of the French Revolution are seen here in their effect upon Catherine the Great of Russia. Winik reminds us just how extraordinary it was that America's government changed peacefully: party politics (Republicans vs. Federalists) did not plunge the nation into a full-scale revolution with the kind of massacres that occurred in France. The author uses mainly secondary sources, so the book would not appeal to upper-level graduate students, but the bibliographic notes at the end will help readers learn more about each topic. Highly recommended for all public, high school, and undergraduate libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/07.]
—Bryan Craig

Kirkus Reviews
Wide-angle presentation of the philosophical, political and martial storms buffeting the infant American republic at the close of the 18th century. In the years following the Constitution's adoption, the United States weathered three domestic rebellions, a quasi-war with France and continued humiliations at the hands of Britain. It withstood the unexpected emergence of political parties and the most contentious election in its history (sharply chronicled in Edward J. Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe, 2007). It managed an unprecedented, peaceful transfer of power between antagonists and witnessed the death of Washington, the figure most indispensable to the precarious American experiment. To explain fully the nature and extent of the young nation's peril and the reasons for its birth and unlikely survival, Winik (History and Public Policy/Univ. of Maryland; April 1865: The Month That Saved America, 2001, etc.) examines the international zeitgeist, especially forces at work in France and Russia. He explains the era's unusual fluidity, the surprising intertwining of people and events illustrated by spot-on portraits of the Enlightenment's greatest men and women, especially those-e.g., Franklin, Jefferson, Talleyrand, Lafayette, Gouverneur Morris, John Paul Jones, Citizen Genet, Thaddeus Kosciuszko-who played important roles on more than one continent. His painterly prose catches Napoleon, Potemkin and Russian General Suvorov at war and the likes of Mirabeau, Hamilton and Adams thinking their way into the next century. Marvelously varied scenes in this sweeping narrative range from Catherine the Great's tour of the Crimea to the backwoods Whiskey Rebellion, from the dinner table at Mt.Vernon to the Ottoman Sultan's seraglio, from the glittering court of Louis XVI to Marat's bathtub and Robespierre's appointment with the guillotine. Winik effortlessly condenses impossibly large events-particularly the French Revolution, whose lofty ideology and bloody effusions shaped so much-all in service of his grand thesis: that this crucial decade of despotism, rebellion, war and democracy accounts for the nation-indeed, the world-we've inherited. Thrilling in scope and elegant in style and argument-a certain bet to win numerous awards.
Walter Isaacson
“In this masterful book, Jay Winik sheds new light on a tumultuous decade rife with lessons for today.”
Robert Dallek
“A cinematic reconstruction of the birth of the modern world. No one interested in history will want to miss it.”
Ron Chernow
“A historical work of rare drama and audacity, told with the tireless verve of a gifted storyteller.”
Jon Meacham
“The Great Upheaval is great history, vividly told.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval is a terrific work that will endure for years to come.”
The Boston Globe
“Ambitious. . . An authoritative study. . . . Intriguing.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
The thesis of Jay Winik's treatment of the Revolutionary era is simple and direct, but its scale and ambition are enormous. "Contrary to the way textbook history likes to tell it," the author says by way of introduction, the world of the late 18th century "was stitched together in a myriad of ways almost unimaginable to the modern mind."

He means the world of politics in the 1790s, the world that comes swirling out of the smoke and rhetoric of the American Revolution, and in a characteristically vivid passage he tries to makes his metaphor concrete: "The great nations of the day, and their leaders, were all intimately tied together, watching one another, marveling at one another, and reacting to one another -- whether from the bustle of French salons in Paris to the young American capital in Philadelphia, from the luxury of St. Petersburg to candlelight dinners in Monticello and Mount Vernon, from the splendor of Vienna to the mysteries of the seraglio in Constantinople."

It was this restless and self-regarding "global" interaction, he insists, that created, in one decade-long rush of events and personalities, the "Great Upheaval" of his title and gave birth to our 21st-century battleground of democratic aspirations and authoritarian reaction. A reader glancing up from his BlackBerry or television may suspect that Winik underestimates what the modern mind can imagine in the way of communication. And students of a certain age may recall that something very close to Winik's thesis was set out some 50 years ago in a massive and learned history textbook by R. R. Palmer called The Age of the Democratic Revolution.

But if Winik (also characteristically) overstates his point, the originality of his presentation cannot be denied. Unlike Palmer, whose two volumes treat revolutionary movements everywhere from America to the Cisalpine Republic of Venice, Winik organizes his material in a series of alternating narratives sharply focused on just three countries, three rulers, three dramas: America, France, Russia.

The first, and most important to his argument, is America, not only because our Revolution and Constitution set everything else in motion but also because George Washington, he believes, is without question "the age's master spirit." The graveyards, as Charles de Gaulle once sardonically observed, are filled with "indispensable men." But in Winik's view, Washington really was indispensable -- without his generalship no Revolution, without his presidency no Union, no example of voluntary retirement from power, no tradition for the world to emulate of stable, non-monarchical, constitutional government.

Early in the book -- after the 20-page "Introduction" and a longer "Prelude" -- and again toward its close, Winik pauses for a long description of his hero. This is a technique he will frequently use, a kind of freeze-frame that stops the action while he wrestles with questions of biography and character. For the most part these are graceful, reliable syntheses of recent scholarship, welcome resting points in an otherwise breathless saga.

Unfortunately, although the argument for Washington's overarching importance is persuasive, Winik gets no closer than anyone else to the core of his nature. He can be brisk and penetrating on the president's supporting cast -- "Madison provided the architecture for the republic, Hamilton its masonry" -- and, alas, he clearly enjoys clawing ever so delicately at Jefferson's weaknesses. But when Washington steps forward and turns his grave, cold glance toward the reader, Winik retreats into baffled cliché ("He was...fated for destiny" ) or allows his prose to collapse entirely: "There was always something different, something special, something grand about this man."

His treatment of France is far more successful, a splendidly dramatic retelling of the French Revolution and the Terror that followed. These sections of the book work so well in part because here -- like a novelist -- Winik has not only a hero he understands (the flawed but genuinely sympathetic Louis XVI); he has a heroine, the brave and beautiful Marie Antoinette, and enough villains, betrayals, and reversals to fill a Shakespearean Folio. His gift for the apt quotation is never better used: One Parisian observes that heads were falling "like slates from a roof." At times his prose is even thrilling: "Now, listening to the scratch of her own breath, her mouth tightened and eyes alert, the queen could hear the stamp of feet and the rattle of axes." And Winik manages to link character and significance in a way that historians rarely do: "To grasp who Robespierre was is not simply to grasp the revolution itself...but it is to see how a nascent democratic republic, filled with such flowering promise, inexorably slid into a prototype of a modern-day killing fields."

As for Russia -- Winik's imagination is obviously stirred by its vast geographic vistas and the clash, not merely of armies but also of civilizations, unleashed by Catherine the Great in her endless wars against the Ottoman world. The empress herself is a fascinating study in contradictions -- the enlightened despot, the philosopher-queen who shrewdly plays France, England, and America against each other, who toys with ideas of reform but falls back on a centuries-long heritage of absolutism and in the age of democratic revolution returns some 800,000 peasants to serfdom. Winik, who has worked as an adviser to U.S. congressmen and a secretary of defense, is particularly good (and cynical) on Catherine's manipulation of public intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot. And he sometimes captures a facet of her protean nature in a single deft phrase: she "had a hard, almost medieval capacity for witnessing senseless brutality with a clear, untroubled gaze."

But most readers will find it hard to see the connection between Catherine's reign and the tumultuous events taking place in Paris and Philadelphia. The great Pugachev rebellion that so frightens Catherine occurs in 1773, well before the others, and it is less an ideological revolution than a brutal, half-mystical uprising led by a bizarre figure who claimed to be the true tsar. The tenuousness of the connection leads, in fact, to a good deal of strained and ineffective logic: If Catherine "had been an American, she would have been part Jefferson, part Washington, part Hamilton." Overstatement becomes the norm: "Her conversations were invariably an artful blend of earthy wisdom and learned philosophy." And occasionally, the fingernail simply screeches across the blackboard -- it is very hard to picture the empress and Potemkin "fondling their dreams."

In the end, Winik returns to America and, turning the tables, the impact of the French Revolution on the new and visibly unsteady Republic. As he recounts our "quasi-war" with France that follows the rise of the Directory and then Napoleon, he insists again and again on the theme that underlies his earlier and very brilliant book, April 1865 (2001). There he had speculated on the contingency of history, the real fragility of the American experiment, the somber possibility that in one short, crucial month the Civil War might have ended otherwise and turned the country in another, darker direction. The Great Upheaval, an epic rather than a sonnet, makes essentially the same case for a crucial period and for the fragility of modern democracy. It is a story largely of battles and palaces, not of how people lived -- war makes "rattling good history," as Thomas Hardy wrote -- and it is marred at many points by its overwrought prose. But its energy is palpable and its conclusion profound and troubling: If America had stumbled and faltered in its first years as a constitutional government, what would have become of the world so completely stitched and interwoven with it? --Max Byrd

Max Byrd is the author of Grant and Shooting the Sun.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641979545
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/11/2007
  • Pages: 688
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jay Winik is the author of the New York Times bestseller April 1865. He is a senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

The Great Upheaval
America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800

Chapter One


Soldiers marched that day in Manhattan. For almost as long as anyone could remember, the sight of soldiers had invariably meant the same thing, whether they were French or Russian, Austrian or English, whether they belonged to kings or were battle-hardened mercenaries, whether they moved in great formations or galloped along on horseback. Too often their presence was ominous, signaling that the campaign was beginning and the war was deepening, that the dead would increase and the bloodshed would continue, and the suffering would go on. But today their footsteps were unique, booming out the rites of nationhood. They called out a celebration of victory and the raising of the flag—the American flag. It was November 25, 1783. Evacuation Day in New York City.

As morning broke, the crowds converged and the collective pulse quickened, murmuring with exhilaration. A hundred years later, the city would still remember and celebrate this day. By Manhattan's shores, the last British troops, heads bowed, dour and defeated, were ferried out to transport ships waiting for them in the harbor, then, sails aloft, their gleaming masts disappearing into the distance. For the British there was indescribable sorrow at the loss of their "thirteen beautiful provinces." And there was then, as one man remembered, "a deep stillness." And then pandemonium.

This final corner of occupied territory was now free.

It was precisely one o'clock. The bells of New York, all but silent since the Stamp Act's repeal and languishing for years in storage, nowrang, while at the southern tip of the island, the flag, torn down in September 1776, was soon hoisted anew to flutter in the wind. All across the city, young and old alike collected in anticipation, by the corner of Broad and Pearl streets, where a roar of applause would ebb and mount, and over to Bowling Green, where in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was read and patriots had toppled the king's equestrian statue and hacked the gilded crown off his head. Handkerchiefs flapped and gawkers hung out their windows, down past Trinity Church, where desperate Americans had once quietly prayed for deliverance. And now, before a thicket of patriots, scores of battle-tested American troops entered to reclaim the city. Led by General Henry Knox and flanked on one side by a hatless George Washington, mounted upon a brilliant white steed, and by Governor George Clinton on the other, here they came. These were the survivors of Bunker Hill, the heroes who crossed the Delaware, the men who had shivered at Valley Forge, and the victors at Yorktown. They were "ill-clad and weather-beaten," but the people loved them just the same. Marching southward in formation under a velvety sky, the triumphant procession wound past Blue Bells Tavern, where Washington reviewed the pageantry, past half-ruined mansions where errant British flags still flew, and past the moldering earthworks and trenches that dotted the roads, down to the island's edge and the streets to the Battery. Crowds gasped and erupted into shouts of "Hurrah." A thirteen-gun salute exploded into the air, while artists and scribblers converged, ready to record the event for posterity.

At Fort Washington, the password of the day was "peace." The eight-year war was over.

The dawn of a new era had begun.

From a distance, one British officer marveled, "The Americans are a curious . . . people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them." Yet the Revolution had been hard on the country. At least 25,000 Americans had died in the conflict—a staggering one percent of the population, a number surpassed only by the ruthless carnage of the Civil War—indeed, one estimate held that as many as 70,000 had perished. And there were the memories. Legions of American soldiers had been held captive aboard British prison ships anchored in the East River, ships that were damp, cold, and reeking from inadequate sanitation. The filth and the lice, the disease and malnutrition, not to mention the gross mistreatment, had carried off an astounding eleven thousand continentals—nearly half of all the deaths in the war itself. And with grim regularity, the bleached skulls and skeletons of the dead would lap up on the shore, bearing silent witness to British atrocities.

In New York, after seven years of British rule and martial law, the city was a shambles, a legacy of the transforming burdens of war. The day's delirium aside, as the sun rose that morning, the vistas were chilling. The city was a patchwork of shanty huts and brick skeletons, remnants of the devastating fire of 1776. The enormity of the reconstruction challenge was overwhelming: In every direction spread weed-choked ruins, rotted-out homes, and vacant lots; and everywhere stood the debris of war. The streets overflowed with trash, squalor, and excrement, and block upon block lay bare and decrepit; New York had even been stripped of its fences and trees—the British troops used them for firewood—while its wharves had been left to rot and sink into the river. No less than Trinity Church was reduced to a blackened hull. Bony cows and pigs scavenged freely, and the people themselves were crammed into a haphazard mass of pitched tents and cramped hovels. Pale-faced and unwashed—disease-ridden too—they existed, in the words of one visitor, "like herrings in a barrel." No wonder New York's future mayor, John Duane, ruefully noted that the city looked as if it "had been inhabited by savages or wild beasts."

And what now? In these early days—or the final ones, it depended upon your perspective of the British crown—the signs were hardly encouraging. For the Tory supporters of the king, the hallowed era of British rule had come to an inglorious end: Powerful businessmen and overseas merchants were without homes; prosperous shipbuilders had been reduced to nothing short of beggars; great politicians appointed by the crown saw their houses rummaged through and their family dynasties abruptly undone. And hordes of English-American children were cast aside by the only world they had ever known. Already, some 60,000 to 80,000 Tories had fled to England or to the safer outposts of Bermuda, the West Indies, and Canada. They knew that for thousands of American "patriots," Tories were little more than hated traitors; they also knew that vengeance, greed, and jingoism made for a lethal cocktail. Sunk in grief, many thus became permanent refugees in foreign lands, clinging vainly to the faint dream of return. Tragically, when the exiles made their way to Britain, more often than not they were viewed as public burdens or social embarrassments, or, in the end, as simply mere bores. "We Americans," one loyalist said gloomily, "are plenty here, and cheap."

For those who remained, the dreaded Armageddon had finally arrived. Gone were the customary sights that had for so long been an integral part of their British lives—the elegant redcoats with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms who were their defenders, the glory of the king and the glamour of their empire, the clatter of official carriages and the pitched whistles of British naval vessels that were the great empire's protector, and, of course, the long skyline adorned by the Union Jacks fluttering aloft; all had changed, absolutely and inexorably forever.

At the moment of the British exodus, one anxious loyalist said tearfully, "The town now swarms with Americans." And the last loyalists themselves? The wreckage of their lives was soon to be revealed in vivid detail: homes seized and sold at auction; family furniture and precious heirlooms abandoned or outright ransacked; thieves callously picking over their personal effects; and shattered dishes littering the floors of once elegant abodes, everywhere the dishes. Most humiliating were the public notices, formally banning the exiles from ever returning to America—or the laws curtailing their civil and financial rights. And soon would come frightening incidents of revenge: One loyalist, seized by a mob in New London, was strung up by the neck aboard a dockside ship, whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails, tarred and feathered, and thrown on a boat to New York. In South Carolina, another was hanged by embittered ex-neighbors.

So on that morning the remaining loyalists numbly waited, listening to the haunting sound of American military men marching their way, the thud of enemy feet in the streets, the sharp commands ringing in the air—and the terrible echo of celebratory cannons off in the distance. One New Yorker even observed that the loyalists were now in "a perfect state of madness, drowning, shooting and hanging themselves."

But euphoric Americans took little heed. As the loyalists escaped New York, packing the roads and crowding the wharves, a surge of new residents arrived, doubling the city's population in just two years and quickly turning this restless little seaport into the most vivacious and cosmopolitan society on America's shores.

New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, were already looking ahead.

Two days after Evacuation Day, George Washington, hugging his artillery commander, gave a tearful farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. "With a heart full of love and gratitude," he told his officers, fighting back his emotions, "I now take leave of you." One of his men who witnessed the scene would recall that he had never seen such a moment "of sorrow and weeping." But more than that, they saw something else quite startling. Washington was sending out a powerful signal: To a man, they were all mere servants of the nation, even as he resisted calls to become a king.

After crossing the Hudson, Washington then rode south through the gathering chill to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Congress was now meeting. Around noon on December 23, 1783, Washington was escorted into the State House, where he met the assembled delegates. He rose and bowed, and with a faint quiver in his hands, proceeded to read his carefully chosen words. "Having now finished the work assigned me . . ." His voice dwindled. He continued: ". . . I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body . . . I here offer my commission and take my leave." Now his eyes filled. Neither the heartbreaking loss of New York, or the brazen victory at Trenton, nor the winter nightmares of Valley Forge and Morristown, or the decisive liberation at Yorktown, could have prepared him for this moment inside these hushed chambers. The spectators, fighting back their own tears, also grasped the importance of the day, itself replete with symbolism: For once more, Washington was relinquishing his military power, underscoring civilian control in the new republic.

In London, King George III was soberly informed that Washington would resign and turn to private life. His reply is legendary. "If he does that, sir," the king exclaimed, no doubt with a slight tremble to his voice, "he will be the greatest man in the world." From a king who could barely hear the words "United States" uttered in his presence and who would turn his back on Thomas Jefferson, this was a subtle admission packed with historic meaning. American liberty was now not simply a rhetorical chant mouthed to stay the hands of a prevaricating despot or a corrupted parliament, but a reality. And this incipient revolution was, it seemed, not destined solely for Americans, but for peoples the world over, and, at long last, it was coming into full reveal.

In the epicenter of Europe in 1783, France, now the globe's mightiest empire, felt it too.

It was a paradox, to be sure. Even if France's support for the young rebels had far less to do with idealism than with a cynical settling of scores with England, and even if the young country to which the monarchy had helped give birth remained a footnote in its attentions, France's fashionable society felt quite differently. Heroic poems with thirteen stanzas became the rage. So were picnics on the thirteenth of the month, in which thirteen toasts to the Americans were drunk. And so were the hundreds of French nobles who had rushed abroad and risked death so that a young republic might live: the Marquis de Lafayette, who would achieve immortality as George Washington's protégé and nearly lose his life at the battle of Brandy-wine; Admiral d'Estaing, who would take Newport and almost die in the struggles to take Savannah; and Admiral Rochambeau, who would eschew the lavish comfort of the French court for one last glorious crusade to fight side by side with the Americans.

The Great Upheaval
America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800
. Copyright © by Jay Winik. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 11, 2009

    It doesn't get any better!!!

    While reading this book I decided that Jay Winik is tied for first place with David McCullough as my favorite historian/writer. I learned more about the revolutions in America, France and Russia than I ever thought I could.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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