Stanislav Petrov: The World's Hero

1983- The events leading up

The Cold War has just entered into an unbearably tense period between the United States and the Soviet Union.

  • A Korean airliner heading from Seoul to New York has just been shot down by a Soviet interceptor citing the reason for destroying the plane as: "remaining silent after being hailed". 269 people are killed including American congressman Larry McDonald.
  • The NATO exercise Operation Able Archer is underway in Europe, raising the nuclear alert levels during the simulation. The Soviets have unjustly downed a civilian plane, and now NATO sits poised to attack in their back yard.
  • President Reagan announces a new missile defense system, which will become known as Star Wars.

The Event

In the early morning hours of September 26th, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov stood duty of the Serpukhov-15 Soviet satellite monitoring bunker. The bunkers task was to watch the skies for preemptive nuclear launches coming from the United States of America and respond accordingly. This assignment was nothing special for 44-year old Petrov, he was a veteran officer and had helped design the early warning system back in the 1970's. Though he was a seasoned serviceman, nothing in his years were enough to prepare him for what would happen next.

A long distance radar began signaling that it had picked up a nuclear missile launch from the west and was targeting Moscow. Chaos erupted within the control room as every emergency light began to flash. The room was anxious but became calm as this had to be a glitch. In nuclear warfare the launch of a single missile is highly unlikely due to the tactic of Mutually Assured Destruction, where one side would launch a salvo of missiles designed to utterly wipe out the receiving nation. The only retaliation left would come in the form of equal promised annihilation. Petrov knew personally that these systems could be flawed and decided to wait, understanding fully the loss of life on his hands if his gamble turned out to be wrong. What happened next would have changed the world forever.


Source

The satellites picked up four more Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile launches, all airborne headed for the Soviet Union. This was unprecedented. One glitch was possible, but never five. Before anyone had a chance to react, the electronic command system known as Krokus had already alerted the General Staff and the Kremlin of the incoming missiles.

In less than 15 seconds Petrov had to make a decision that would affect his career and the lives of millions. Initiate a counterstrike and release the entirety of the Soviet nuclear arsenal on the United States and, if it was a glitch start a nuclear holocaust... or do nothing. Engineer's ran immediate systems checks and all programs showed to be at highest levels of accuracy indicating this was not a mistake and indeed was very real. All the monitors in the bunker flashed red, every phone was ringing and throughout the unimaginable chaos Petrov decided with full conviction on a decision: they would wait and see what happened next...

So what happened?

Well, obviously as we stand here today no nukes were ever launched. The satellites caught reflecting light off the tops of clouds aligned with U.S. missile fields and registered as a false attack, the very thing these programs were designed not to do. All indications of an imminent attack and yet one cool headed Officer prevented further escalation. Clearly, after such a feat of bravery and for making such a bold decision Petrov was rewarded right? Well, not exactly...

Stanislav Petrov
Stanislav Petrov | Source

After the epic scale malfunction of the early defense systems Petrov became the scapegoat for the investigation into the embarrassment. He was cited for not "showing his work" as to the actions he took during the crisis for which he responded: "I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don't have a third hand!"

Stanislav Petrov was then reassigned to a lesser position within the military. When he retired shortly after he was awarded a pension of approximately $200 a month. His health deteriorated and he soon lost his wife while being unable to find work. The Soviets kept all information of the event Top-Secret until 1998.

Source

Petrov Today

After the declassification of the incident in 1998, Stanislav finally received recognition for his achievements.

  • 2004- He was honored with a World Citizen Award, $1000 and a trophy "for averting a catastrophe"
  • 2006- He was honored at the United Nations with a second World Citizen Award and was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and CBS.
  • 2013- Awarded the Dresden Preis in Germany and $32,000 (USD)

Petrov to this day does not consider himself any sort of a hero. He mentioned in an interview he never even told his late wife what had happened that morning.

Do you think the outcome would have been different had someone else been at Petrov's post that morning?

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Comments 7 comments

USHISTORY4YOU profile image

USHISTORY4YOU 3 years ago from Lemoore California

Very interesting. Voted up.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 3 years ago from sunny Florida

Wow, history certainly would be different had he not made the choice he did, for sure. Thank you for sharing this with us. And, rightly so, that he was honored for his good judgment. It is important for us to hear of those who affect our lives in such a positive way.

Sending Angels your way. :) ps


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

So Sept the 26th, 1983, almost became terminator day for the Northern Hemisphere. I did not know of this incident so thanks for writing it here on HP bcqurr. Good to know Petrov finally received the accolades he deserved. It also reminds me of how JFK saved the world from nuclear Armageddon under extremely intense pressure by everybody and his brother(not RFK) to launch a first strike during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If he had given in most if not all of us wouldn't be here on HP right now.


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

This had to be a chilling scenario! A good thing it didn't happen 20 years earlier during the Cuban missile crisis.


bcgurr profile image

bcgurr 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado Author

Actually, another similar incident did happen during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov

They actually made a movie about this in 2002 called K-19 the widowmaker which starred Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. The Russians certainly had their share of issues when dealing with nukes :)


KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

Inspiring and downright terrifying when I think about what could have gone wrong. God bless Col. Petrov, with apologies for my presumption if he is still a good atheist soviet.

Voted "awesome" and shared.


bcgurr profile image

bcgurr 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado Author

Thank you for the kind accolade! In researching Petrov I was unable to find much information on his personal life, such as where he resides today or how he is treated be his countrymen (while a hero to us, the Russians still view him as representing a rather embarrassing situation).

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