In 2017 Baltabay Kaziev, a native of Astana in Kazakhstan, had reached the grand old age of 92. Like many people of his advanced years, Kaziev had various aches and pains that troubled him from time to time. However, there was one particular spot that was bothering him. And incredibly, the pain he was experiencing could be traced back 73 years to his Second World War service with the Red Army.
Kazakhstan is a land of spectacular landscapes, and these days it is an independent republic. It’s the world’s largest landlocked country, too, although it does border the Caspian Sea, which is itself landlocked. The country also shares borders with Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. And its location in Central Asia means that it’s had a somewhat turbulent history.
The Kazakhs can trace their history back to Turkic nomads who settled the land. But its neighbor Russia has been a major, and often unwelcome, influence over the centuries. In the 19th century, Kazakhstan was effectively ruled by Russia’s imperial tsars. What’s more, tensions between native Kazakhs and Russian incomers frequently boiled over into violence.
Russia, of course, underwent its own cataclysmic convulsions with the 1917 communist revolution. And in the period following the revolution, Kazakhstan actually enjoyed some autonomy – although in 1936 the country was incorporated into Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin seems to have regarded the country as some kind of massive prison, deporting millions there in the 1930s and ’40s.
Since Kazakhstan was now formally part of the Soviet Union, it was signed up to the pact of neutrality that Hitler and Stalin had agreed in 1939. So, with the outbreak of war in Western Europe, Kazakhstan, like the rest of the Soviet Union, was effectively allied with Nazi Germany.
But this uneasy and unlikely peace between the Nazi and Communist dictatorships was not to last. Hitler put an emphatic end to the agreement by launching Operation Barbarossa, a mass invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. German troops flooded into Russia.
According to historian Lloyd Clark, on the day of the invasion Hitler said, “Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history.” The only force that could stop this catastrophe was the Red Army. And its numbers included many soldiers from Kazakhstan, not the least of whom was to be our Baltabay Kaziev.
Hitler’s armies actually enjoyed considerable success in the early stages of the campaign, rapidly progressing across much of western Russia. Three powerful German armies fought their way across Soviet territory: Army Groups North, Centre and South. But while the Germans reached nearly as far as the outskirts of Moscow, they did not get to Kazakhstan.
Even though the Germans weren’t actually on Kazakh soil, however, the people of the country began to play a part in the defense of the Soviet Union from early on. At first, those from Kazakh were mainly required to serve in labor battalions rather than in combat. This may have been because the Russians didn’t fully trust the Kazakh people.
But needs must, and a Soviet Union desperate for manpower overturned this policy in December 1941. Consequently, the Kazakhs were now ushered into fighting roles – and in that same month the first signs of a turn in the tide of Soviet military fortunes appeared.
This change in fortune came with the Battle of Moscow, which started in December 1941. Hitler had been determined to take the city as quickly as possible. However, the Red Army, 500,000 of them, stopped the Germans in their tracks outside the capital, helped by the Soviets being better trained and equipped for winter combat. And Hitler’s failure to take Moscow, it can be argued, was the turning point in the war.
At any rate, as the Soviets pushed the enemy back, Baltabay Kaziev’s service with the Red Army in World War II saw him fighting to liberate Ukraine from Nazi occupation. He was a specialist sub-machine gunner whose weapon of choice may well have been the famous PPSh-41. Often nicknamed the “papasha,” or “daddy” in Russian, this deadly gun was capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. Many fell victim to its bullets.
The fight to liberate Ukraine from the Nazis started as early as December 1942 with the recapture of towns in eastern Ukraine, just across the border from Russia. But actually wresting possession of Ukraine would take until October 1944, with as much as 50 percent of the Red Army involved.
One part of the operation that Kaziev played his part in was the recapture of the city of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. The Second Battle of Kiev in 1943 – the first was in 1941 when the Germans took the city – ran from October to December. And eventually, after bitter street-to-street fighting, the Red Army emerged victorious.
It was 73 years after Kaziev had been involved in the battle to free Ukraine that he went to visit his doctor, complaining about an unpleasant pain in his hip. The medics therefore decided to give him an MRI scan to see if that would reveal what was causing this mysterious affliction.
Kaziev had mentioned that the pain might be down to a World War II bullet, but doctors initially discounted this. After all, it was now 2017, and the war had ended in 1945. However, Kaziev vaguely remembered being shot in 1944; and if true, that would mean the bullet had been in place for 73 years.
But when the results of the MRI scan came back, the doctors were flabbergasted. Kaziev had been right all along. There was indeed a bullet from World War II lodged in his hip; and as he’d indicated, that was what had been causing him discomfort.
The doctors now decided to operate on Kaziev to remove the bullet. And despite the projectile having been lodged in Kaziev’s hip for 73 years, it took the surgeon just seven minutes to remove it. Kaziev had been awarded the Order of the Red Star for his bravery during the war. Perhaps he should have also been decorated for tolerating the pain of a bullet for all those years.
The website Viral Thread reported the words of Kaziev’s doctor Saule Hamzina. “Throughout the long years of his life he has never complained about his health,” Hamzina apparently said. “Only not so long ago he contacted a veteran hospital with his swollen hip. Baltabay contacted us and told us that his leg is hurting because of a bullet. We were shocked and thought that it can’t be right!”
So ultimately, tough old Baltabay Kaziev was proved right: he had been carrying a bullet inside him for more than seven decades. Yet despite this, we can count Kaziev as one of the lucky Red Army combatants from World War II. The estimated price paid by the Red Army in the defeat of Hitler was in excess of eight and a half million killed or missing. So Kaziev was not just a brave man; he was a determined survivor.