The history of Russia in World War 2 is still being revised. In the first decades after World War 2, the historiography of Russia's part in the war in between 1939 and the end of 1941, was largely based on a combination of the strictly censored Russian state propaganda's version and of what was known outside Russia, which was then closed behind the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War.
Eventually, two new factors provided new insights and new proofs which enable a revision that let us get much closer to the truth.
The first factor was the great and laborious work of a few open-minded 2nd generation independent researchers like Viktor Suvorov and Mark Solonin, which applied analytic approaches to the vast scope of publicly available Russian wartime and post-war documentation and literature, detected thousands of small details of information that slipped over the years through the Soviet censorship, and processed these into coherent new insights which dramatically changed our perception of what happened, both before the German invasion (Suvorov's work), and after it started (Solonin's work).
First and foremost of these researchers was Vladimir Rezun (known by his pen name Viktor Suvorov), a Russian military intelligence officer who applied his deep knowledge of intelligence gathering and analysis methods, and of Russian military doctrines, to Russia's World War 2 military literature, with dramatic results.
The second factor was the partial removal of the deep cover of censorship from Russian military and state archives for a period of just five years, between the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991 and the gradual recovery of conservative nationalism in the Russian government, marked, for example, by the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer. This gap of five years of relative openness was used by historians to access previously closed archives and reach documents which provide previously unavailable proofs that further support the claims of Suvorov and the other researchers. Since the mid-1990s, 'mainstream' western historiography increasingly accepts both the main claims and the main supporting facts and evidence of the pioneering work of researchers like Suvorov, and the "history as we know it" of Russia in World War 2 is being re-written.
The 'old' historiography of Russia in 1939-1941 can be summarized to this:
Most of this story is correct, but there are two major problems with this story that attracted the attention of the analytical researchers, and which I will discuss here:
- In August 1939 Stalin's Communist Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Nazi Germany in order to keep the aggressive Hitler away from Russia.
- The two dictatorships' mighty armies then attacked and occupied Poland from West and East and divided it between them.
- While Hitler occupied half of Europe from Norway to Greece, Russia occupied the Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania.
- To keep Hitler appeased all this time, Stalin's Russia provided Germany, as agreed, with large quantities of war materials and even operational support services to assist the German war effort.
- On June 22, 1941, Germany, together with its allies (Finland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy), invaded Russia in a gigantic surprise attack.
- The mighty German military, the most efficient in the world then, applied its successful Blitzkrieg tactic, and the terrible unpreparedness and deployment in concentrations close to the border of the giant Russian army, helped the Germans to achieve tremendous and rapid victories that defeated the brave and fully equipped but surprised and unprepared Russians, forcing millions of encircled Russian soldiers to surrender.
- Hitler's German military, exhausted and not equipped for the harsh Russian winter, was finally stopped just before Moscow.
- Russia survived and recovered from its enormous losses, increased its strength while fighting fiercely, and eventually pushed the Germans all the way back to Berlin, emerging from the long and terrible war as a super-power, an equal only to the United States.
The scope and details of each of these issues are vast, worthy of the full books that the researchers published. I apologize for the inevitable briefness in presenting them in the limited scope of an essay.
- It appears as if in all the time of years months and weeks before the German invasion in June 1941, the Russian military and leadership were consistently irrational and made almost every possible mistake, not just in how and where the majority of the giant Russian forces were deployed, but even in terms of military planning, military procurement, and political decisions. This was simply too bad to be true and demanded a better explanation, which Suvorov provides.
- It appears as if once the fighting started, the quality advantage of the formidably efficient Germans over the poor Russian soldiers was so great, that it resulted in amazing, enormous, total and almost immediate German victories that dwarfed even their great victories in France a year earlier. The alleged tremendous rate of German success in destroying the giant Russian military in the first days and weeks of the invasion, was simply too high to be true, and demanded a better explanation, which Solonin provides.
The most prepared for war - the great Soviet war planIt is well known how the western allies prepared for the invasion of Normandy for over two years, how they considered every possible aspect of the enormous preparations, trained huge forces, some purposely trained for specific roles, invented new purpose-designed weapons and other equipment, and even conducted smaller scale invasions in order to find out early enough where they were wrong and fix it before the big operation.
Under Stalin's dictatorship, Russia's military, industrial, domestic, and diplomatic preparations for a second World War were of greater magnitude. Furthermore, in August 1939 Stalin was in a position in which he could prevent Hitler's invasion of Poland, the invasion that started World War 2, and he knew it well and said so. But at that decisive point in history, instead of preventing war, Stalin did the opposite. He cleared the way and provided guarantees for Hitler to invade, after he knew for sure that this will start a war not just in Poland but also in Western Europe, a war that the Communist ideology expected, planned and prepared for, and desired. Then, with Germany at war with Britain and France, Stalin's Russia moved to the 2nd phase of its long term preparations. Russia moved to a maximum effort war regime in which it enormously expanded its military force and military production rates, expanded its territory westwards, by force, which also gave it a long common border with Germany, and finally in 1941 began to mobilize millions and transferred its enormous attack-oriented forces to the German and Romanian borders, and prepared to enter the European war in a gigantic attack that would:
Hitler's Germany managed to be the first to attack, by a narrow gap of a few weeks at most (Suvorov's conclusion, based on various evidence, is that Russia's Red Army was going to attack on July 6, 1941, so Hitler got ahead of them by exactly two weeks). The German attack forced the Red Army put its operational plans aside. It returned to those plans and implemented them three years later, except that since by then the situation was different, Communism occupied only Eastern Europe, not all of it.
- Immediately cut Germany's main source of oil in Ploesti, in southern Romania, just about 120 miles from the Russian border, in order to paralyze Hitler's armed forces for lack of oil (as eventually happened in 1944).
- Defeat the exhausted Germany and its allies across the entire front from the Finland in the North to the Black Sea in the South - a mirror image of the German attack that eventually started in June 22, 1941.
- Continue with the Communist "liberation" of the entire Europe, by advancing all the way first to Germany, then to France, and Spain, bringing all of Europe under the brutal totalitarian regime which the Russian people already "enjoyed" then, that made Russia one big prison with countless prisons in it.
The plan to invade Germany and conquer all of Europe in the name of Communism's expansionist ideology, is likely the greatest secret of World War 2 that remains officially Top Secret. The Communist Empire kept that secret for five decades, preferring to appear peaceful and militarily incapable, even dumb, than to appear as the aggressive expansionist "Evil Empire" that it always was. And modern Russia, nationalist but no longer Communist, understandably might never officially admit that either, although key evidence slipped out of their control.
Some key details :
To summarize, driven by its expansionist Communist ideology, Russia (then the U.S.S.R, or Soviet Union) planned and prepared in every possible military and civilian aspect, and at an enormous scale and cost, to an aggressive war of invasion and occupation, and NOT to a war of defense. While Hitler's aggression was genuinely his own, Russia cynically used it with the intention that while Germany and the western powers will exhaust each other at war, which they did, Russia will maximize and complete its enormous preparations for war, and will in the summer of 1941 perform a gigantic surprise attack that will first cut Hitler's Romanian oil supply, then defeat Germany, and then continue to complete the occupation of all of Europe, all the way to Spain. This was the largest, longest, and deepest pre-war effort ever in history, but it was knocked out of course (yet partially implemented later, in 1944, resulting in the occupation of 'just' half of Europe) because of a combination of three factors:
- Expansionist Ideology - While Hitler's Nazi ideology publicly officially and repeatedly declared since the 1920s that its goal is nothing short of global domination by force, the Communist Soviet Union declared the goal of global conquest by force, but it started even earlier. The Soviet Red Army's official defining goal is the same. Not national defense but rather global conquest by aggressive global war to bring Communism to power everywhere.
- Although they were natural enemies for centuries and fought each other so many times, including in the first World War, the Communist Russia made an allegedly irrational secret deal with post-WWI Germany in 1922, even before Hitler's era, in which in return for secretly providing nothing more than training grounds and facilities for the German military to keep its shape and further develop advanced military technology and tactics in total violation of the peace treaty imposed by the western countries, Russia in return got direct access to the best and latest tactics and military technologies of its most capable past and future enemy, the German military, which was indeed the most efficient and most technologically advanced military force in the world then. The mutual strategic interest of the two enemies created a secret deal that enabled a dramatic improvement of Russian military doctrines and technology, and supported a recovery of German military power after WWI, which was later turned against the western powers, as Communism predicted and wanted.
- Since 1931, despite its bad economic situation, Russia increased its military industry potential to that of a super-power. Masked as public sports, it trained ten of millions of men in expensive state-paid military 'sports' like parachuting, gliding, flying, weapons training, and other 'sports'. Participation was initially voluntary, and then became mandatory. By 1935 Russia had 140,000 glider pilots, and in Dec. 1936 the government's youth newspaper called for training 150,000 aircraft pilots, all state-paid and of course quite expensive. By 1941 there were 121,000 'civilian sports'-trained pilots. The other pilots were of course trained, and then mass-trained, by the Russian Air Force. The number of flight schools in the Russian Air Force increased to 12 in 1937, to 18 in January 1940, to 28 in Sept. 1940, and to 41 in early 1941. Russia trained military and para-military pilots and paratroopers at an enormous cost and at an incredible rate which even dramatically increased in 1939 and then even further in 1940, far beyond any reasonable defensive need. In 1941 the Russians had a million trained military paratroopers, a fantastic number, suitable only for a gigantic war of aggression, not for defending Russia as plain infantry. Tens of millions were 'just' trained in the cheaper 'sport' of weapons training. By June 1941, after more than doubling the manpower of the regular military, Russia had an additional reserve military force of 29 million already trained soldiers.
- In August 1939, Stalin had secret negotiations with Germany and, seperately, with Britain and France. On one hand, Hitler told Stalin he was going to attack Poland and needed to know whether Russia will allow it (or even participate) or will it fight against it. On the other hand, Britain and France assured Stalin that if Hitler will invade their ally Poland they will declare war against Hitler. Knowing that, and knowing that Hitler did not believe in Britain's and France's resolution to defend Poland, Stalin gladly promised his support to Hitler. It is true that due to the 'weakness' of the French and British proposals, Russia had strong reasons to choose to make the deal with Hitler as it did, but historians now have the proof that Russia made the deal with Hitler with explicit intention and knowledge that this will start a European war that will first exhaust Germany France and Britain and then the fully prepared Russia will attack Germany and will occupy all of Europe. Stalin clearly explained all that to his government in a meeting on Aug. 19, 1939, in which he told them exactly why Russia is going to sign (four days later) the deal with Hitler's Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that cleared the way for Hitler to start World War 2.
- Between August 1939 and June 1941, when Germany was at war in the West, Russia devoted all its resources to prepare for war with Germany. In that period the regular Russian army expanded from 2,000,000 soldiers to 5,500,000 soldiers, and many millions more were given military training in order to be called as ready reserves once the war starts. In fact, between Aug. 1939 and June 1941, the Russian army expanded and moved towards the western border from remote inland regions at such rate that the German intelligence simply could not keep track of it, and was therefore terribly wrong in its estimates of the size of the Russian force it was about to attack.
- The Russian military industry, that was already enormous, switched, in January 1939!, to an extreme wartime regime, and produced vast quantities of tanks, aircraft, and particularly vast stockpiles of ammunition, so much that there was a separate government minister for ammunition production beside the minister of military industry. Work hours increased. In June 1940 the entire country switched to seven days of work per week, then work hours increased too, initially to 10 hours per day, then to 12 hours per day, and since mid 1940 the penalty for any failure to provide the requested quotas or product quality, or even just being late for work, was years in prison. This wartime work regime was so extreme that later, even in the worst days of the war, there was no need to add to it, since Russia was already making its maximum war effort since before Hitler invaded. The Russian army's General Staff also worked since 1940 around the clock, preparing for war like mad, although Russia was still allegedly with excellent relations with Germany. Since Feb. 1941, under Zhukov, the Russian army General Staff and units' staffs worked 15 to 17 hours per day, seven days per week, preparing for war.
- The military production and mobilization effort in Russia since January 1939 was so extreme that it could not be sustained for a long time. It was a major countdown for a planned war, exactly as designed by the Russian military doctrine, which defined not only wartime tactics but also put equal emphasis on detailing the optimal path to an optimal planned war - a full scale mobilization of the nation and the industry, to be followed by a gigantic surprise attack and the occupation of the enemy countries.
- All resources were put into mobile aggressive military measures and units (tanks, a million paratroopers !!, tactical attack aircraft, etc), not into defensive or 'static' measures ( land mines, fortifications, anti-aircraft units, long range bombers etc.). The entire doctrine of the Russian armed forces was aggressive. Defensive tactics were not taught at all and were considered defeatist in an army that by definition was intended to conquer all other countries.
- Millions of maps of Germany and Romania were distributed in the Russian army. Maps of Russia were few.
- Hitler always intended to invade Russia and declared it, but the war against Britain forced him to delay that, but when Stalin annexed the eastern part of Romania by ultimatum, and got his army to a distance of just 120 miles from his source of oil in Ploesti, Romania, that's when Hitler realized how dangerous his position was, and that he had to move fast, so although this meant war in two fronts (Britain in the West and Russia in the East), a thing that Germany always wanted to avoid, he ordered his army to prepare to invade Russia as soon as possible, "in the first clear days of May 1941". Unexpected complication in the Balkans eventually postponed the German attack until June 22nd, 1941.
- In June 1941, shortly before the German invasion, Russia removed border fences and other obstacles along its western border, to enable rapid border crossing - of the the Russian army moving West, not in order to help the enemy cross into Russia. The entire NKVD border guards force evacuated the border and moved inland, replaced in their positions by regular army units.
- The majority of the Russian army and Air Force and enormous stockpiles of ammunition were concentrated along the border, not inland. Furthermore, the enormous piles of ammunition were plainly deployed in the fields and near the border region's train stations, exposed to the weather, not in weather-proof depots and bunkers, so they could not survive the autumn rains and the winter. This in itself has only one meaning, that Russia was going to invade Germany in the summer of 1941.
This enormous amount of ammunition was placed very close to its consumers, the artillery, armor, and infantry units, and was going to be consumed soon, in the planned Russian attack. Russia even placed many new large ammunition factories, built in 1939-1941, close to the border, not inland, where their output could be quickly shipped to the border, but where they were also very vulnerable in case of an invasion into Russia.
- The most significant concentrations were in Poland and along the Romanian border in the South. Along the southern end of the Romanian border, near the Black Sea, and near Ploesti, were very large concentrations of mountain infantry, Marines, amphibious units, paratroops, bombers, which were far more useful to attack Romania's mountains, and oil fields, than to defend the Russian flat terrain behind them. For defensive purposes, the entire Russian military array at the southern end of the border was simply irrational, and very vulnerable to attack, but it was perfect for attacking Romania and cutting off Hitler's oil supply as fast as possible.
- The only doctrine in the Soviet military was that of a full scale surprise attack that comes after a hidden mobilization, and followed by deeper attacks into enemy territory. Nothing else was taught in Russian military academies.
- The modern Russian military historiography is full of evidence that the Russian army was preparing since 1940 for a planned aggressive war against Germany.
- The Russian Air Force always used long range heavy bombers. In August 1939 Stalin ordered to abandon further procurement and development of heavy bombers and shift all resources to tactical ground attack aircraft, which are more suitable for an aggressive war, in which the plan is to conquer vast enemy territories in a fast war, not destroy its cities with bombers in a long war of attrition. This is exactly like what happened in the German Air Force, for the same reasons. Britain and the US developed long range bombers - but they did not intend to conquer enemy countries. Germany, and Russia, did. Also, the date of Stalin's decision, and other similar military procurement and mobilization decisions, matches that of his his main decision to star a war to conquer Germany and the rest of Europe, the decision in Aug. 19, 1939 that opened the door for Hitler to invade Poland and conveniently start that war for Stalin.
- In June 1941, behind the Soviet armies on the border, in addition to the military police units that were supposed to block deserters there were also three full mobile armies of the NKVD, the Russian secret police, and of Communist party officials. Their role was to take full political control of the occupied countries and eliminate all resistance. Blocking deserters is useful for defense too, but such an enormous political-police force is useful only for a planned war of occupation.
- In mid 1940, following the Russian ultimatum to Romania, Germany's ally and only source of oil, Hitler realized how urgent it became for him to strike Russia ( which he always intended to do ) as soon as possible and regardless of his unfinished war with Britain and lack of readiness for the Russian winter. In July 1940 the German military was ordered to prepare to invade Russia as soon as the weather will permit in May 1941.
- Stalin was repeatedly warned by his intelligence services, military advisors, and by Britain, that the Germans are also preparing a giant surprise attack against Russia, and was advised by Zhukov and the General Staff to start the planned Russian surprise attack earlier, in May 1941, instead of waiting to complete ALL the preparations, but Stalin, relying mostly on the verified fact that the German military was not ready for Russian winter conditions, dismissed the warnings and preferred to wait just a little more t complete the preparations for the Russian surprise attack, but that was a little too late, and Hitler struck first, not prepared for winter, but still at enormous power, with the world's most effective army then.
- The human factor of morale. When the Germans invaded, instead of fiercely fighting back, the mighty Soviet military machine collapsed and disintegrated at an incredible rate.
The missing part of the Red Army's collapseIt is obvious that suffering a surprise attack by millions of soldiers of the world's best army is shocking, and can result in a military collapse, in high rate of casualties, in organized and unorganized retreats, in surrenders of entire encircled units, etc. Also, the German Blitzkrieg tactic was designed to achieve mass encirclements that will result in mass surrenders of encircled enemy units. The fact that the majority of the Russian ground and air forces, even some naval bases, were deployed close to the border, deployed in the fields and forests in pre-attack concentrations instead of being dug-in, or fortified, or deployed in deep arrays of multiple lines of defense, and further the fact that very large forces and equipment were still on the railways to the front when the Germans attacked, so that they or at least their vehicles were still stuck on trains, all that can further explain the tremendous losses and chaos that the Russians suffered in the first hours, days, weeks, of the German invasion.
But what Russian historiography censored for decades, is the large scale of total morale collapse of Soviet armed forces and Communist party establishments which escaped, 'disappeared', or surrendered before they even were engaged in battle. Millions, from privates to Generals, individually or as entire units, abandoned their tanks, guns, air bases, without battle, and escaped on vehicles or on foot, or simply disappeared into the nearby villages and forests.
Fighting and then losing is one thing. Massive and rapid escape without a fight and massive voluntary surrender, are another, and Soviet censorship tried to hide that, by further intensifying the myth of the destructiveness of the German attack, and by further intensifying the belief that the entire red army was right on the border. There are reports of entire unit staffs which escaped without battle and were found again hundreds of kilometers to the East. There were tens of Generals who disappeared and were never located again. There are reports of tank divisions which, although they were not right on the border and were not engaged in fighting in the first day, miraculously 'lost' 100% of their tanks and other fighting equipment in the second day of fighting, without actually being engaged in battle, and then escaped hundreds of kilometers eastwards almost without losing a single truck even to technical malfunction. There are reports of entire Air Force regiments which reported that they suffered negligible or no losses in the air or on the ground at the first day, and then simply abandoned their air bases and escaped by trucks and on foot. In 1941 Russia lost millions of soldiers. Only 32% of the reported losses were the dead and wounded. Millions surrendered, many of them as fast as they could, and so many others escaped from the front, either disappeared or remained in service, but only after a distant escape and after abandoning every weapon or equipment, even rifles and light mortars, that could force them to stay and fight.
The apparent reasons for this mass unwillingness to fight were:
- A further intensified mental shock of those who were always trained educated and taught others that attack and victory are the only possible option, and suddenly found themselves under massive surprise attack for which they never planned or prepared.
- Stalin, the murderous dictator, was surrounded with people who told him much too often what he wanted to hear about Russia's preparations for war. The enormous reported numbers of material production and manpower training were perhaps correct. For example the figures of vast mass-training of pilots (which, by the way, were NOT volunteers, unlike pilots anywhere else in the world), and received minimal training, in order to keep up with the enormous training quotas dictated by Stalin.
But what Stalin never suspected, was the possibility that in his regime of mass terror and fear, where so many millions were imprisoned and millions others killed by the police, and where tens of millions starved for years in order to pay for the enormous cost of the vast effort to convert Russia with a period of just two decades from a mostly agricultural country to an industrial militarist super-power with gigantic military power. Stalin never suspected that under a massive attack on his brutal regime, the people, the millions of soldiers who previously suffered from the regime, millions were former political prisoners of which many were recruited from hard labor prisons directly to war front military service, will favor surrender to defending their homeland, or will have no willingness to fight immediately as they realized that since they're country is being massively attacked there's a good chance that they can escape from the war without being punished by the formidable regime. Given the possibility that for the first time in their life non-cooperation with the Communist regime will NOT be severely punished, so many favored that option, and that's something the Russian censorship could never admit.
So while in all material aspects Russia was enormously prepared for war, and could therefore theoretically manage much better than it did, even under a massive surprise attack, in morale terms, the Russian people in the front (which rapidly moved East all across the long front), were generally unwilling to fight for their terrible terror regime once fear of it was lost since the regime itself was being attacked and in danger.
The Russian people starts fighting seriously"One of the great laws of war is Never invade Russia" - Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
"History knows no greater display of courage than that shown by the people of the Soviet Union" - Secretary of War Henry Stimson
There were heroic exceptions of very persistent and fanatic Russian fighting of course, right from the very first moments of the German surprise attack. For centuries, Russian soldiers and civilians were known for their toughness, their ability to persist in terrible conditions. That's part of Russian culture, regardless of whether it's a result of having to survive Russia's cruel weather, as some suggest, or not.
The Russian border fortress in Brest, Poland, for example, with 4000 Russian soldiers, was massively attacked and encircled immediately when the Germans invaded. Despite being besieged, outnumbered 10:1, running out of food, water, ammunition, the Russian defenders fought fiercely for five weeks, while the war front moved hundreds of kilometers behind them, and later resistance of a few survivors continued underground for months. For the Germans, Brest was a very bitter first taste of the type of fierce Russian fighting they would later experience in Stalingrad and elsewhere.
In the city of Smolensk, on the main road to Moscow, the advancing Germans encircled in the 3rd week of fighting a large Russian force, but unlike other encirclements, this force did not surrender. It kept fighting fiercely, counter attacked the Germans, and eventually succeeded in braking out of the encirclement in order to continue fighting. Similar persistent fighting took place in Odessa, Murmansk, and elsewhere, and especially in Leningrad, which remained besieged, terribly starved, and shelled since the 3rd month of the war, and kept fighting for over two years until the horrible siege was finally removed by the advancing Russian army.
What eventually changed the attitude of the millions of Russian soldiers and made such persistent fierce fighting the norm of the Russian army everywhere, was the gradual realization that they were under an attack of unprecedented deliberate cruelty that intended to literally decimate and destroy the Russian people, as Hitler ordered his army and S.S, according to the Nazi ideology of a war of racial destruction of the German "masters race" against the Russians in the occupied territories which were treated, both civilians and captured prisoners of war, with terrible cruelty that intended to make them all die of cold and starvation. Vast numbers of Russian prisoners of war died of starvation and of exposure to the harsh weather, and so were countless civilians in the captured villages who were either mass murdered or simply stripped of their winter clothing and left to die of exposure in the snow. With time, a stream of surviving starved refugees, both civilians and escaping prisoners of war, were able to escape back to Russian held territory and tell their terrible stories of the German treatment of the population and of captured soldiers. Many did not have to say a word, it was enough to see how starved they were. Russian media and military propaganda published their stories and pictures, and many were moved from one army unit to another, to be shown and heard. This, more than anything else, ignited what the Russians still call "The Great Patriotic War". The Russians everywhere realized that even compared to the cruelty of Stalin's terror regime, the alternative of Nazi occupation was far worse, and that they are literally fighting to avoid extinction by the Nazis. Initially heroic and fanatic Russian fighting was the exception, then it intensified when the Russians were literally fighting for home and family, in the battle of Moscow, and later, as the horrible realization of the monster they're facing became known to them, the Russians fought the toughest war in their tough history, with key examples Stalingrad, Kursk, and so many other places in their giant country. That way, although Russia lost about 85% of the enormous military production potential is prepared for the invasion of Europe, although it lost before the end of 1941 a military force that was more than double the size the that German intelligence originally estimated as the entire Russian force, Russia survived, recovered its military production far beyond German reach, recruited new millions of new soldiers instead of those lost, and fought a lengthy and costly war of survival, and revenge, that destroyed Nazi Germany, and Russia, despite its enormous losses, ended World War 2 as a super-power.
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