Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

13.2. Issues of Internal and External Migration in Post-Soviet Central Asia
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Dinora Azimova (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

From the mountains to the lowlands - the Soviet policy of "inner-Tajik" resettlement

Thomas Loy (Zentralasien-Seminar, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)



In this paper I want to present a short summary of "inner-Tajik" forced migrations during the Soviet period. In Tajikistan, large-scale resettlements of the local population from the mountains to the lowlands began in the late 1920s. It was mainly connected to the rise in economy through the development of the republic’s agriculture and industry. The Soviet authorities considered the development of the mountainous regions, which contain more than 90% of the republic’s territory and are not usable for cotton production, to have no future. The main agricultural strategy for the Central Asian republics ordered by the Communist Party leadership in 1929 was collectivization and "Cotton independence".(1) In 1970 the production of cotton was still regarded as the "most important task of today" in Tajikistan.(2) At the same time resettlement was used as a tool by the Soviet administration to transform traditional local societies into a Soviet one.(3)

Even today many scholars and politicians in Tajikistan regard the Soviet policy of mass migrations as a useful and necessary tool to modernize both the country’s economy and its society. Those, one may say, marginalized few who criticize or criticized this policy during the last twenty years are often denounced as "democrats of perestroika times...who's aim is to find some dirt under the fingernails" as we can read in a publication on the occasion of the 120 th anniversary of Nusratullo Makhsum's birthday in 2001.(4) Among other things Nusratullo Makhsum(5), a native Soviet politician of the 1920s and early 30s, was responsible for the first mass resettlements in Tajikistan before and after becoming a full-scale Soviet republic in 1929. Already in 1926, at the first extraordinary constituent session of the councillors of the Tajik ASSR, he formulated a program put into action until the Soviet Union ceased to exist: "We do not have a problem of space! On the one hand we have vast areas of uncultivated land - and we have overpopulated districts on the other hand. To overcome the problems in front of us we do not need a land reform, but irrigation of fallow lands and inner [Tajik] resettlement. It is absolutely necessary to give the land to the mountain-dwellers, who are hindered by the prevailing circumstances to develop their agriculture."(6) The civil war in the early 20s diminished both the area under cultivation and the productivity. The chaotic situation led to mass migrations of refugees to Afghanistan. But in the mid 1920s these refugees returned and within only 4 years the irrigated area under cultivation grew from 40.000 ha to more than 200.000 ha in 1929.(7) According to Valentin Bushkov until the 1940s the migrations involved some 30% of the republic’s population (a total of about 83.000 households). In the 1950s and the 60s the number of resettlers further increased. This finally led to a complete reversal of the population proportions in Tajikistan and caused social as well as ecological problems. Aziz Niyazi assumes that because of mass migrations the population in the republic’s mountain regions since the 1920s decreased from 70% to 30%.8)

To reach the goal of "cotton independence", water, flat land, and peasants transformed into farm-labourers were needed. There are countless stories about forced migrations in Tajikistan from the 1920s to the 1980s. To my knowledge not a single one of them has been adequately investigated thus far - whether in Tajikistan, or by western researchers.(9) The resettlements affected almost all mountainous regions of the republic and all the groups with different ethnic background who were living there. Tajiks, Yaghnobi(10) and Pamiri people faced the same fate. In the second part of this article I am going to show the practice and consequences of the resettlement through the special case of the forced migration of the Yaghnob valley. In 1970 and 1971 all the inhabitants of this valley were trans-located to the cotton producing sovkhozes of the newly established district Zafarobod in northern Tajikistan. The history of this mass migration has a lot of parallels in other resettlements.(11) As in the past, it was carried out even before the construction work for irrigation and infrastructure was finished. Migrants had to live in tents or houses without gas, electricity or water. The hot climate and the polluted drinking water were unbearable for mountain-dwellers. Diseases and mortality rates among the newcomers increased drastically. These bad conditions together with the insufficient supply of vital goods at the migrants' destinations caused the illegal return of quite many resettled families back to where they came from.(12)

During the course of the next decades this picture didn't change all that much. In July 1972 the chairman of the State Committee for the use of labour resources (hereafter GosComTrud), Mahmudbek Narzibekov, informed his superiors at the Council of Ministers of the Tajik SSR in one sentence about the life and working conditions of the resettlers in the sovkhozes and kolkhozes of the republic:

"Because of unserious attitudes among some party and council organisations, kolkhoz administrations and directors of sovkhozes regarding the fulfilment of the plans to build dwelling houses for the resettlers, and because of their bad living conditions in the districts, where they move in, a considerable number of resettlers did not consolidate at the new places and returned to where they lived before or moved to other parts of the republic. This causes a serious loss for the state."(13)

According to this report between 1967 and 1971 more than 150 resettler households left the cotton producing districts and illegally returned to Gharm, Fayzabad, and other mountain areas. In these so called "hardly accessible" areas, which were difficult to check by the central authorities, the returnees cultivated new settlements and no longer cared much about soviet values. All this was possible because they were backed by the local authorities of their districts and kolkhozes, who let them return and provided them with the necessary goods.(14) As we have seen above, all this was not new for the central state authorities. Nevertheless the state was unable or unwilling to change its policy, clinging to the path once chosen for decades, it continued to resettle peasant families and transformed them into cotton labourers until the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In 1970 the 100th birthday of Lenin was to be celebrated. This was a good occasion to again change the plans for Central Asian cotton production. "In this venerable anniversary of Lenin, everything necessary has to be prepared [in the Tajik SSR] for the sowing to sell not less than 650.000 tons of ‚the white gold’ to the state."(15) When this headline was published in March 1970 the translocation of the first three Yaghnob villages to the newly established cotton producing sovkhozes of Zafarobod district had just begun.


The Yaghnob case

In 1970 "Guidelines for regular resettlement of the population to the kolkhozes and sovkhozes of districts with irrigated agriculture"(16) existed. Stalin’s time was long past and therefore it had to at least look like the migration of the population was done on their own will. The main principle of these guidelines read as follows: "Resettlement is executed voluntarily."(17) However already by the end of the 1960s the Soviet strategy for recruiting new labourers for the cotton producing sovkhozes of the Tajik SSR by means of encouragement and privileges had to be considered as a failure. "The cotton-field is the front-line of the shock worker"(18) and "Welcome to the new cultivated land!"(19) were popular slogans to invite the population to the new cultivated lands - but the population of the Tajik mountains was not willing to change their traditional ways of living and leave their villages.(20)


Leaving Yaghnob

Despite the fact that different levels of the republic’s administration increased the pressure on reluctant local authorities, the numbers of migrants did not rise. Year after year the number of those to be resettled became less, both on paper and in practice.(21) Some local authorities deliberately neglected and resisted the plans for migration made by GosPlan(22). This insubordinate attitude was an open secret one could even read about in Tajik newspapers.(23) Unfortunately the people of Yaghnob had no such administrative backing. Although their resettlement had not been planned for 1970, it was decided and executed in cooperation with the GosKomTrud, the Rajkom CP Ajni, and the IspolkomRaj only within a few months.(24) In October 1969 a letter reputed to be from the Ajni authorities (RajKom CP and IspolKomRaj) circulated in the administration offices of Dushanbe. In this letter, at a request of the inhabitants of the Yaghnob valley the Ajni authorities asked the GosPlan to decide upon their resettlement to Zafarobod or to Yovon. In addition to that the GosPlan was informed about the poor living conditions in the remote valley as well as its inefficiency for the state economy, and the fact that its inhabitants are cut off and unemployed during the long winter periods.(25) On 26 February 1970 the GosKomTrud, at the request of the Supreme Soviet of the Tajik SSR, instructed the Department of Migration to prepare the resettlement.(26)

Only a few days later, members of the local and central authorities flew to the snowed up valley and communicated to the people of three villages (Dumzoj, Kaše, Piskon) that they immediately have to be evacuated because of an imminent natural disaster (land-slide). Every household got an application form for resettlement to Zafarobod. The family heads simply had to sign the filled out forms.(27) Those who did not want to leave their homes were forced to board the helicopters that flew them out of the valley. The possibilities to avoid the resettlement were rather limited, not only because of the season. After the first families had left the valley, the authorities went on to the neighbouring villages and negotiated for a resettlement to Zafarobod. Promises and privileges were offered to encourage the decisions to leave. Some families (whose relatives had already been evacuated) agreed. Those families who did not want to leave the land of their ancestors were removed by force. Most of the villages were resettled within only a few days. The villagers had to leave behind most of their possessions. They were not allowed to put much into the helicopters, which flew them out of the valley.(28) The livestock of those villagers, who were the first to be resettled, was taken over by kolkhozes from the district's centre Ajni. In retrospect the Yaghnobi regard the whole resettlement as a big fraud.(29) The authorities, on the other hand validified their action by declaring the compete resettlement of the Yaghnob valley to be a precautionary measure to save the population living in a "geodynamic danger zone". (30) At the End of 1970 most of the 30 villages of the valley were removed. The remaining population followed in 1971.

In July 1972 Mahmudbek Narzibekov, head of the GosKomTrud, informed the Council of Ministers of the Tajik SSR about the living and working conditions of resettlers from the mountains and foothills in the republic’s kolkhozes and sovkhozes:

"Between 1967 and 1971 altogether 3372 households had been resettled. 8272 of these 20512 persons were able to work. The main destinations of these resettlements had been recently irrigated areas...It is characteristic that all of these resettlers lived in villages, which were located in areas of geodynamic processes. The population of these villages was not fully engaged in socially useful work."(31)

John S. Schoeberlein suggested some reasons for the migration of the Yaghnobi:

From what we stated above we may add two other ones:


Welcome to Zafarobod

When the Yaghnobi arrived in Zafarobod they were not ‘engaged in socially useful work’ either. None of them had experience in sowing, growing and irrigating cotton plants. The newly established sovkhozes didn’t have the capacity to provide the newcomers with knowledge and tools. So at the end of 1970 most of the Yaghnobi "had not been integrated into the working processes of the brigades and working units"(33). The responsible bureaucrats knew exactly what other kinds of problems mountain dwellers faced in the lowlands. The newcomers in the 1970s had the same difficulties as all the other resettlers decades before. In the beginning there was neither enough living space nor were there heating facilities, fuel, gas, or electricity for the Yaghnobi. Some had to live in tents and they lacked medical treatment.(34) The Council of Ministers was informed that "shortcomings are so serious, that they may cause undesirable results..."(35) but nothing happened. Diseases were mainly caused by the hot climate in summer, the freezing winters, and the chemically polluted drinking water. (36) Within the first three years a lot of resettlers, mostly children and women, died.

Because of the bad living conditions some families decided to return to their homeland illegally. The first ones left Zafarobod in 1973 or 1974. For those who returned, the situation in Yaghnob was not easy either. During the years they were gone, lots of buildings and irrigation channels had been destroyed, either by natural circumstances or deliberately. Despite all the hardship and the long winters, 69 families managed to make their living in Yaghnob for the next three years. In 1978 45 households out of 12 villages were forcefully removed again. The resettlement of the remaining 24 families, who had returned to the village Kirjonte, was planned for spring 1979.(37) But this resettlement was not executed anymore. Since then these villagers live in the Yaghnob valley.

A second wave of illegal return started in the early 1980s. Until the end of the 1980s the valley kept the official status of being "uninhabited" and its population remained unregistered. The efforts to "revive Yaghnob"(38) collapsed because of the devastating war starting in Tajikistan soon after its independence. Today less than 500 persons are registered in Yaghnob while a vast majority of Yaghnobi still live in the area of Zafarobod.


Consequences and perceptions of the migration

Before the migration there had been 30 (others count 28) villages, and 567 households living in the Yaghnob valley. In summer 2001, 78 households in 17 villages of the valley tried to survive. The biggest village (15 families) was Kirjonte. In some villages there was only one family left. Other villages were destroyed completely. Besides the economic problems people of Yaghnob complained most about the lack of education for their children. Whether or not the younger generation will stay in Yaghnob mainly depends on the economic development of the valley.

The traditional communities and the culture of the inhabitants of the villages of the Yaghnob valley (and most of the villages itself) were mostly destroyed by the forced resettlement of the 1970s. All of them fear the loss of their unique identity and language.(39)

What was striking about the perception of the migration and its consequences by the population of the Yaghnob valley was that they did not blame the Soviet state or government for this policy. Only to a certain degree and just on a local scale did they connect their own resettlement to the Soviet system itself. Even thirty years after their migration and ten years after the end of the Soviet Union most of my interviewees blamed the authorities of the district's capital Ajni for being responsible for their fate. In our conversations they rarely took into account the role that central administrations in Dushanbe or in Moscow might have played. Therefore, the condemnation of their resettlement did not at all influence their positive memories of the Soviet Union (or as they used to call it: Davr-i hukumat - Age of the government). In this respect, there was no difference in perception; neither between the ones living in Yaghnob nor those in Zafarobod or amongst the generations.

But unlike the fathers, the sons do not dream of their lost homeland anymore. The generation of Yaghnobi, who grew up or was born in the cotton producing sovkhozes lost their relationship to and the knowledge for a life in the mountains. They feel at home in Zafarobod now, even if they know well, that life in this place depends on technology and water. At the moment this generational conflict is more or less undercover because of material difficulties in both Zafarobod and Yaghnob. Almost all the cotton farmers are in debt, and so for most of the families it is impossible to move from one place to the other.(40) In Yaghnob the younger ones are unable to realize their wish to leave behind the frugal and hard life in the valley, while most members of the older generation in Zafarobod only keep their memories and their dreams of a life in Yaghnob. But sooner or later no one will be dreaming of green pastures, fresh air, and clean water anymore.



From a human and cultural point of view, migration as a means of social engineering in the Tajik SSR had traumatic and disastrous results. However, also from an economic and ecologic perspective the soviet "inner-Tajik" migration policy has to be considered as a failure. The depopulation of vast regions of the Tajik mountains corresponds to the population pressure in areas of cotton production. The economic and legal collapse of the Soviet Union and the civil war in Tajikistan highlighted this failed policy and even aggravated the problems and antagonisms caused by this inhumane strategy.(41)

It seems to be perfectly true for the later periods of migration policy in Tajikistan, what Michael Thurman stated for the "command-administrative system" in cotton farming for Uzbekistan in the 1930s:

"Thus the soviet government obtained the cotton that it wanted. It did so at the cost of establishing a system of agricultural production that relied on coercion rather than economic incentive. However, for the Party’s purposes, gross output of cotton and control of the countryside for political centralization and social transformation were more important than economic efficiency."(42)

One can say the Soviets didn't invent resettlement as a tool to transform economy and society in Central Asia but what they made out of it was a rationalised method that moved, transformed, or completely ruined, not only individuals, but families, villages, and whole cultural landscapes that had fallen victim to these state organized resettlements. This short-sighted and inhumane policy affected the entire society. Its negative consequences and sometimes devastating results are still felt today and cannot be overcome easily.

When I finished my recordings of recollections of the migration of the Yaghnob valley and my research in the Tajik state archive in the summer of 2001 not only was there a book published on Nusratullo Makhsum in Tajikistan, but one could read in the newspapers about the so called "proud and happy newcomers from the remote Pamirs" who were recently brought to cultivate cotton in the area of Kurghonteppa in southern Tajikistan. "They came down from the mountains to the plains to work for the beginning of a new life [and] to cultivate a corner of the homeland that lay fallow for centuries." I really was struck by the parallels (linguistic and in substance) to the press releases from the early 1970s. The journalist further reports about "rumours spread by malicious persons" concerning the bad living conditions, epidemic diseases, and the illegal return of some of the Pamiri resettlers. "To do away with all these lies", he then went to visit the "small tent-town ... in the heart of the desert" where they were brought to. There, while talking to the resettlers, the author "feels that no one of them regrets their decision" to leave the mountains.(43)

In May 2003, when these resettlers had already built their new houses, the Tajik government released a new five year plan which reads like an exact repetition of Nusratullo Makhsum`s speech in 1926. Between 2003 and 2007 the authorities in Dushanbe intend "to give the population of the mountain areas who do not own land the chance to obtain pieces of uncultivated land in other parts of the republic".(44) In this period the government of Tajikistan plans to resettle 4100 families from the high mountains to the lowlands.

© Thomas Loy (Zentralasien-Seminar, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)


(1) See J. Michael Thurman: The "Command-Administrative System" in cotton farming in Uzbekistan 1920s to present. Bloomington 1999; p. 9 sqq.

(2) "Vazifa-i muhimtarin-i imrūza"; in: Toğikiston-i soveti. 25.09.1970

(3) See Schoeberlein: Shifting ground: How the Soviet regime used resettlement to transform Central Asian Society and the consequences of this policy today. In: Komatsu; Obya; Schoeberlein [ed.]: Migration in Central Asia: Its history and current problems. Osaka 2000; pp. 41-64

(4) Abulhaev, Dūstov: Nusratullo Maxsum va muhoğirat-i doxili-i dehqononi-i toğik. In: Masov [ed.]: Fidoi-i millat. (Ba iftixor-i 120-solagi-i zodrūz-i Nusratullo Maxsum (Lutfulloev)). Dushanbe 2001; p. 117 sq.

(5) Nusratullo Makhsum was accused and sentenced because of "bourgeois nationalism" in 1933 and finally fell victim to the purges in 1937. 1964 he was rehabilitated and today he has to serve for those who'd like to establish new myths for a new Tajik nationalism. See, for example the contributions to Masov [ed.]: Fidoi-i millat...Dushanbe 2001

(6) Nusratullo Maxsum. Reči, doklady, stat’i i materialy o ego žiznedejatel’nosti. Dushanbe 2000

(7) In Tajik there is one term for refugee and resettler: "muhoğir".

(8) Aziz Niyazi: Migration, Demography and Socio-Ecological Processes in Tajikistan. In: Komatsu; Obya; Schoeberlein [ed.]: Migration in Central Asia...p.169 - Niyazi doesn’t support this assumption by documentary evidence.

(9) On the forced migration of the Yaghnobi see Thomas Loy: Jaghnob 1970. Erinnerungen an eine Zwangsumsiedlung in der TajSSR. Wiesbaden 2005 and Thomas Loy: The Yaghnob Case - Remembering the forced migration of the Yaghnob valley. In: Kreyenbroek; Allison: Discourses of Memory in Iranian Languages (forthcoming).

(10) In this article Yaghnobi stands for all the inhabitants of the Yaghnob valley. In 1970 seven out of 30 villages of the valley spoke Tajik and not Yaghnobi. For an ethnographic and linguistic description of the Yaghnob valley, see Andreev: Materialy po ėtnografii Jagnoba (zapisi 1927-1928gg.) Dushanbe 1970

(11) See for example the resettlement of the inhabitants of Masčoh to the Dalverzin Steppe in northern Tajikistan (which started in 1956), the migration of the people of Yazgulom to the Vaxš valley (in 1954), and the translocation of the inhabitants of Gharm, Qarotegin and Darvoz, to name only a few.

(12) According to Abulhaev; Dūstov: Nusratullo Maxsum... p.94 almost 50% of those families who were resettled from the Gharm area to Kurghanteppa in 1929 returned to the mountain districts (about 1000 persons).

(13) Tajik State Archive (fond 1566, opis’ 3, delo 96, list 74) - (hereafter - TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 96, l. 74))

(14) vgl. TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 96, l. 73-75)

(15) Komsomol-i Toğikiston, 11.03.1970, p.1

(16) "Instrukcija o porjadke pereselenija naselenija v kolxozy i sovxozy rajonov orošaemogo zemledelija Tadžikskoj SSR" TSA (f.1566, o. 3, d. 85, l. 39-49)

(17) "Pereselenie naselenija provoditsja na dobrovol’nyx načalax." TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 85, l. 39).

(18) "Paxtazor - front-i zarbdor!" See for example Toğikiston-i soveti. 08.09.1970

(19) "Marhamat ba zaminho-i navkoram!" See for example S. Hakimova: Marhamat ba zamin-i navkoram! In: Toğikiston-i soveti. 23.08.1971

(20) See Masud Mullodžanov: Sošedšie s gor ... ėtnografičeskie ėkskursii. In: Literaturnaja gazeta. 03.02.1971

(21) In 1965 the number of resettled housholds was 715 (planned 1530) and 1968 the number was 534 (planned 585), see TSA (f. 18, o. 8, d. 2403, l. 46)

(22) GosPlan (Gosudarsvennaja Planovaja Komissija - State-Plan Commission)

(23) see for example Toğikiston-i soveti (27.02.1968) and TSA (f. 18, o. 8, d. 2403, l. 48)

(24) GosKomTrud (Gosudarstvennyj Komitet Soveta Ministrov Tadžikskoj SSR po ispol’zovanju Trudovyx resursov - State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the TajikSSR for the use of labour resources); RajKom CP Ajni (Rajonnyj Komitet - District’s Committee of the Communist Party of the Ajni district); IspolKomRaj (Ispolnitel’nyj Komitet sovetov deputatov trudjaščixsja Rajona - Executive Committees of the counsil of the district’s working deputies)

(25) TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 46, l. 3sqq.) - For a more detailed discussion of this document as well as translated extracts from it, see Loy: The Yaghnob case... and Loy: Jaghnob 1970...p. 27 sqq.

(26) TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 11, l. 28)

(27) See, for example TSA (f. 1566, o. 4, d. 424, l. 340 sqq). For a copy of one of these filled out applications and a resettler’s identification, see Loy: Jaghnob 1970..., p. 120 sqq.

(28) The Yaghnob valley was one of the most underdeveloped regions of the republic. During the Soviet Union no motor-road existed and no electrification. Even today only the lower part of the valley is connected to the road net and only some of the villages have water run generators.

(29) For a detailed discussion of the Yaghnobi’s perceptions and recollections of the forced migration, see Loy: Jaghnob 1970..., p. 32sqq.; Loy: The Yaghnob case...

(30) See for example TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 107, l. 136) and TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 96, l. 73)

(31) TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 96, l. 73). Among others 567 Yaghnobi households are mentioned in this report.

(32) See Schoeberlein: Shifting ground... p. 47 sq.

(33) TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 89, l. 14 sq.)

(34) see TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 89, l. 52 sqq.) and TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 88, l. 15 sqq.)

(35) TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 89, l. 14 sq.) Report of the GosKomTrud; 22.10.1970

(36) The numbers of those who fell victim to these bad conditions are not known to me. But almost all of my interlocutors both in Zafarobod and in Yaghnob had cases in their families.

(37) see TSA (f. 1566, o. 3, d. 116, l. 178)

(38) The statutes of the organisation "Ėhjo-i Jaġnob" (Revival of Yaghnob) were settled in Dushanbe on March 30th 1991.

(39) For a description and discussion of Yaghnobi, see Bielmeier[1989]: Yaghnōbī. In: Rüdiger Schmitt [ed.]: Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum. Wiesbaden 1989

(40) For the financial problems of cotton farmers in Tajikistan, see for example Quentin Peel: Central Asia is corrupted by cotton. In: The Financial Times, 10 March 2005 (www. - 21.07.2006)

(41) See Aziz Niazi: Tadschikistan als ökologischer Konflikt. Der umstrittene Bau des Wasserkraftwerkes von Rogun. In: Mahfel; No. 4; 1994; p. 28-32

(42) J. Michael Thurman: The "command-administrative system" ... p. 29

(43) Sattor Qaraxonov: "Mo avvalinem..." In: Čarx-i gardun; 01.06.2001

(44) Radio-i ozodi ( - 20.05.2003) - see also Boris Khairuddinov; Zafar Abdullaev: Dreaming of the Mountains. ( - 21.07.2006)

13.2. Issues of Internal and External Migration in Post-Soviet Central Asia

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For quotation purposes:
Thomas Loy (Zentralasien-Seminar, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin): From the mountains to the lowlands - the Soviet policy of "inner-Tajik" resettlement. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/13_2/loy16.htm

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