Back in 2013, I wrote about Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, the man who saved the world, but there is another Russian who can lay claim to that title – Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.
Petrov was born in 1939 in Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast. He joined the Soviet Air Defence Forces, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and it was in this role that he prevented nuclear armageddon by doing absolutely nothing.
The year was 1983 and tensions were high between east and west. On 5th September, a Korean airliner carrying mostly American passengers was shot down over Soviet territory because Russia believed that it was carrying out a spying mission. Ronald Regan labelled Russia as the ‘evil empire’ and the Kremlin was convinced that America would retaliate and ordered preparations for all-out nuclear war.
Three weeks after the incident, on 26th September, Petrov was in charge of Serpukhov-15, one of the country’s early warning bunkers. It wasn’t his usual job, but something he did twice a month to prevent his skills from getting rusty.
Just after midnight, what appeared to be an American missile appeared on the screens. Petrov assumed it must be an error and did nothing, but a few minutes later, four more missile blips came on screen and the red warning signs began to flash.
Petrov himself had written the procedure that should be followed – that he should immediately inform his Commander in Chief who in turn would pass the intelligence to Yuri Andropov who would have undoubtedly ordered a counter strike.
But Petrov did nothing. He had fifteen minutes to react before the missiles reached Russia, and yet he had a gut feeling that it was a false alarm. His reasoned that if the Americans were going to start a nuclear war, they would have sent hundreds of missiles, not just five. This assumption could have been a big mistake because one of America’s plans was indeed to launch just a few missiles in order to confuse the enemy.
In any event, he ignored the protocol he himself had initiated and did nothing. It later transpired that ‘ghost’ missiles were caused by a technical anomaly. The satellite system was relatively new and the false alarm was triggered by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota and the orbit of the satellites.
Petrov was reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork and for not describing the incident in the war diary, and although he was not punished, a year later he was offered and took early retirement.
Details of the incident only became public in 1998 and in 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1000 ‘in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.’
Other awards followed and today, Petrov lives in a small village near Moscow in relative anonymity. He gave most of his reward money to his grandchildren and spent the rest on a vacuum cleaner, an item he had always dreamed of, which then turned out to be faulty.
Petrov has said he does not know that he should regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. In an interview for the documentary film The Man Who Saved the World, he says: ‘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 ten years knew nothing about it. “So what did you do?” she asked me. Nothing. I did nothing.’