A Soviet colonel performed the greatest feat half a century ago, preventing a nuclear war. In Russia he was investigated, in the West he was awarded. His heroism was revealed by accident
There are three known cases of nuclear apocalypse being averted during the Cold War. The first was at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when Vasily Arkhipov, commander of 3 Soviet submarines in the Caribbean Sea, refused to obey an order from a superior military officer and fire torpedoes at American ships. The second explosive situation that would lead to nuclear war between the two great powers comes 5 years later with a reverse sign when an American commander picks up a false alarm. The third case is in 1983, and the hero who saves the world is a Soviet colonel. He accepted that the warning of a missile attack by the US was false and did not follow the prescriptions for a response. Instead of being rewarded, he was on the verge of being fired in those troubled times. For years, the story of Stanislav Petrov remained unknown to the wider world until the beginning of the new century, when the shadow of horror accidentally caught the media’s eye. However, Petrov never received the deserved recognition for his act and died in oblivion in 2017, as a pensioner with meager means, struck down by pneumonia. His death was announced not by the Russians, but by the German who made a documentary film about his fateful act.
The story begins exactly half a century ago, on September 26, 1983, shortly after midnight, in the secret bunker “Serpukhov-15”, near Moscow. This is the heavily guarded location from which the Soviet Union monitors its early warning satellites. Their role is to detect a possible missile launch by the US.
The Cold War was in full swing at the time. Three weeks earlier, the USSR shot down a South Korean passenger plane because it was entering Soviet airspace. 269 people died, including a US congressman. US President Ronald Reagan rejects calls to end the arms race, calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov hardens his tone toward America in anticipation of any possible enemy attack.
25 minutes between life and death
The alarm goes off and a button lights up on the panel in front of Stanislav Petrov, who is a 44-year-old officer in the Soviet Army. The button is “Start”. As Petrov himself recounts in interviews, it was triggered because one of the Soviet satellites sent a message to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack had begun. After detailed velocity calculations, the warning system’s computer reports that the missile was launched from a base in the United States. The responsibility to make a decision falls on Petrov, who is on shift at the moment.
“For 15 seconds we were in a state of shock. We had to find out what was next,” Petrov later recalled. He explains that when it comes to a single message – a single missile launch – it is not immediately transmitted up the chain to the main command and electronic command system – “Crocus”. But because reports of a missile launch came in so quickly, the alert to High Command was automatically sent even before he could decide whether the signal was authentic.
The decision was fateful. Andropov’s nuclear briefcase was still being developed.
He had less than half an hour to react. It is estimated that only 25 minutes pass between the launch of a missile and its detonation.
Petrov quickly began evaluating the incoming data. At first the satellite reported one rocket fired, but then they gradually increased. The system starts to light up like a Christmas tree. According to her, five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were launched.
Five minutes after the start of the warnings, Petrov cut off – these signals are not real.
He tells how he made the decision under enormous stress. He stood in front of the flashing cards and consoles – with a phone in one hand and a radio in the other. He was trying to gather as much information as possible. Another officer in the secret bunker was shouting into his phone that he must remain completely calm.
“I had a strange feeling in my stomach. My comfortable chair felt like a hot pan, my legs went soft. I felt like I couldn’t stand up. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made the decision and that was it,” she says after years Petrov.
As he hesitated, 200 people followed his every move. He mentally replayed the instructions from the training. He was repeatedly taught that the nuclear attack would be massive, so that the defense systems of the USSR would not be able to cope with it, and the target would be hit with a single salvo. This made him question the authenticity of the signal because the monitors showed only five missiles.
“I thought: when people start a war, they don’t start with just five missiles. Five missiles won’t do much damage,” Petrov’s recollection continues.
There was another factor that contributed to calming the tension. Ground-based radar installations that detect missiles rising above the horizon line did not report any missiles. These radars are controlled by another command center, and because they detect missiles only after they come over the horizon, their data comes in minutes after the satellites.
“I admit, I was scared. I knew what a huge responsibility was on my shoulders,” he shared.
It all sounds like a nightmare. But it had happened. And fortunately, shortly after the decision made by Petrov, it turns out that it was completely correct. Because what the Soviet satellites mistook for rockets turned out to be sunlight reflected off the clouds.
Not recognition, but condemnation
Initially, Petrov was praised for his actions. However, an investigation into the incident was then launched and he was subjected to heavy questioning by the investigators. When asked why he didn’t write down everything that happened that night, Petrov replied that he had a phone in one hand, a radio station in the other, and he simply didn’t have a third hand to write with.
Years later, in one of his rare interviews, he opined that he was made a scapegoat for the false alarm.
“The managers took everything away from me,” he recalls. “They didn’t want to admit that anyone had done anything good, and instead preferred to spread the blame.”
After all, he is neither rewarded nor punished. There is no information about what happened in the upper floors of the Soviet leadership on the fateful night. The computer program that was supposed to filter this information was rewritten. In fact, it appears that it was hastily introduced in response to a similar system developed in the US. According to Petrov, he knew that she could not be relied on 100%.
“We were smarter than computers. We created them. Still – I’m no hero, I’ve done my job,” he likes to say.
The miserable pension
The modesty of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov is not only proverbial, it is hereditary. He was born on September 7, 1939 near Vladivostok. His father was an Air Force pilot in World War II and his mother was a nurse. None of them enjoyed privileges. He joined the Red Army after graduating from a military school in Kiev. His pedantry and efficiency elevated him in the military hierarchy, and he was enrolled in the early warning system from its very creation in the early 1970s.
Colonel Stanislav Petrov retired from the army in 1994 to take care of his wife Raisa, who was suffering from cancer. She lost the battle with the disease in 1997. During the difficult years of transition in Russia, when pensions were not enough for a normal life, he was even forced to grow potatoes to feed himself.
His role in preventing a nuclear apocalypse only became known in 1998 with the publication of the memoirs of General Yuri Votintsev, retired head of the Soviet missile defense system.
The omitted phrase
The truth is that the incident was kept secret for a decade in top secret documents. Even Petrov’s wife never found out about the key role her husband played in preventing a nuclear holocaust. A year after her death, however, things changed. During Votintsev’s interview for the German “Bild”, he surprisingly talks about the quiet courage shown by his colleague.
“After reading his words, I felt as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt,” writes journalist Karl Schumacher in his blog. “I couldn’t get rid of the thought that I should do something for the man who prevented nuclear war and saved the world.”
Schumacher quickly took the plane that landed in Russia and found Petrov in the small town of Friazino, northeast of Moscow. Schumacher invited the hero to the German town of Oberhausen so that the local residents and the whole world could understand that not long ago humanity was on the brink of nuclear war. He wanted his compatriots to learn about the courage of this man who, with his decision, prevented it.
Petrov initially declined the invitation, but later agreed. Gave interviews, received some of the biggest peace awards. In 2006, the Association of European Citizens presented him with a statuette with the inscription: “To the man who prevented a nuclear war.”
In 2012, Petrov was awarded the German Media Prize, which was also awarded to Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Kofi Annan. A year later, he received the Dresden Peace Prize. It was given to him by a 25-year-old boy, a representative of the generation “which would not have survived if it were not for Stanislav Petrov”.
Later comes the premiere of the movie “The Man Who Saved the World”. Actor Kevin Costner played the role of Petrov and decided to send him $500 as a “thank you” for making the right decision.
Both during his lifetime and after death, Petrov was recognized by foreigners, not by his own. Days before the 50th anniversary of Petrov’s brave act, the Russian media is silent about the anniversary, and articles about him begin with: Feat of inaction.
Today, when the confrontation between Russia and America even exceeds the decibels of the Cold War, the memory of Stanislav Petrov cannot be compared with inaction. And with heroism.