Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who Saved Us From World War 3
Just a Small Mushroom Cloud
Have you ever heard of Stanislav Petrov? No? The 70-year-old pensioner who lives in a country house in Fryazino northeast of Moscow? No? The man who may have single-handedly averted a thermonuclear holocaust and certainly helped avert one, saving tens or hundreds of millions of lives? Still no? You are not alone.
Soviet and US Flags
Tensions between the West and the USSR had been especially high in the months leading up to September 1983. The Russians feared President Reagan's “Star Wars” system would embolden the US to launch a preemptive strike. Russia's strategy was to respond immediately with an all-out nuclear counter-attack upon receiving indications of such a launch. Also, NATO was planning military exercises (code-named Able Archer 83) involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and NATO naval maneuvers were being held in the Barents Sea near Soviet submarine bases. Finally, on September 1, 1983, the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet, killing all 269 people, including many Americans.
Stanislav Petrov's Job
In this atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, 44-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty just past midnight on Monday September 26, 1983. He was in command of the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, a closed military facility south of Moscow, whose computers and communication systems monitored the Soviet Union's early warning satellites watching for any sign of a ballistic missile launch in the United States. His job was to report any such launches to his superiors who would notify the general staff who would consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. A decision to retaliate would have to occur within minutes of the first sign of an attack.
Sirens, Alarms and Nuclear War
A few minutes past midnight a piercing warning siren wailed. It had detected the launch of a missile from the U.S. Petrov recalled, "For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to understand, what's next?". As he thought about it, he reasoned that it might be a computer error because the Americans wouldn't likely attack with just one missile. But, a few minutes later, another launch was detected, then another, then another, then another. The sirens were deafening; alarms were blaring, screens were flashing “Start” and electronic maps were blinking. Five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were reported headed toward the Soviet Union from the United States. The system was “roaring”, he recalled.
“I didn’t even have time to think about what I was doing, or to fill out my log. I just had to make a decision on the spot,” he said later. “I’ll admit it, I was scared. I knew the level of responsibility at my fingertips.”
Petrov explained that a single launch would not immediately go up the chain of command to the general staff but the reports of a missile salvo meant the general staff was already alerted even before he could judge whether the launches were genuine.
“I was the one with the information and my reaction would determine the course of action. If I told them it was an attack, it would have been easier for them to go along with this and to act accordingly than to say otherwise. The panic would have spread like in a hen house,” Petrov said.
Remain Calm and Do Your Duty
Holding a phone in one hand and fumbling with an intercom with the other, listening to his superior shouting over the phone to remain calm and do his duty while the alarms continued blaring, Petrov tried to assimilate all the information at once. He had been taught that the United States would mount a massive nuclear attack in order to overwhelm the Soviet defenses. Five missiles wouldn't do the job, although each Minuteman could deliver three independently targetable warheads. He also had doubts about the computer system. He felt it had been rushed into service and was still “raw”.
"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." He told his superiors that this was a false alarm. The nuclear response was officially canceled when ground radar did not confirm the launches minutes later.
It was later confirmed that the spy satellites had mistaken a rare alignment of sunlight reflected from high-altitude clouds for ballistic missiles rising from the US.
Petrov, at first praised, was then investigated and interrogated. He said the investigators tried to make him the scapegoat for the faulty system. “When the State Commission started looking into the reasons behind the false alarm, they encountered plenty of flaws in the early detection system. So my superiors were getting the blame and they did not want to recognize that anyone did any good, but instead chose to spread the blame.”
After the investigation, he was neither rewarded nor punished, though his military career was over. He was posted to a less-sensitive position and soon retired to live off his pension. The entire incident was classified. It was not until 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when General Votintsev, one of his superiors, published his memoirs describing the incident and Petrov's role in it.
Since then, Petrov has been honored and recognized for his actions. Among those honors is the German Media Prize for preventing a possible nuclear war. Previous recipients of the German Media Prize include Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. At the United Nations in New York, he was also presented with the second special World Citizen Award, in January 2006, when he was also interviewed by Walter Cronkite.
“At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one – after all, I was literally just doing my job. All that happened didn't matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. 'So what did you do?' she asked me. I did nothing."
Petrov Awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize
And Another Honor
Almost 30 years after Petrov Stanislov's action possibly averted a nuclear holocaust, he was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize on February 17, 2013. In a ceremony at the Dresden Opera Theater in a city devastated in World War II, Heidrun Hanusch, one of the event organizers said,
“We believe that the heroic deed of Stanislav Petrov will go down in history as one of the most significant events of the past few decades that contributed to the preservation of peace. Our prize is given for averting a conflict, not for its settlement, and Mr. Petrov averted a third world war – hence he is worthy of this award.”
The Kardashians and Who?
I'd never heard of Stanislav Petrov until I came across a reference to him on a Russian web site. At the time of the crisis, in 1983, he was supposed to be my enemy. Thanks to the mainstream media (left, right or center), I’m aware of Snooki’s dramas, Lindsay Lohan’s turmoils, the Kardashian clan’s triumphs and tragedies. There just isn’t room to squeeze in something about a retired Russian Lieutenant Colonel who saved the world.
Having lived his life in quiet obscurity, Stanislav Petrov’s death on May 19, 2017 at age 77 passed unnoticed. It wasn’t until Karl Schumacher, a German who was one of the first to publicize his story, tried to contact him that the world learned of Stanislav Petrov’s death four months after the fact. Then, at last, the news of his death and his heroic actions finally garnered the proper attention near the top of the world’s news cycles in September 2017.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 David Hunt