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Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who Saved Us From World War 3

Updated on October 8, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Just a Small Mushroom Cloud

A "small" 23 kiloton nuclear explosion
A "small" 23 kiloton nuclear explosion | Source

Who?

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

US/USSR Tensions

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.

Missile Launch

Minuteman II missile launch
Minuteman II missile launch | Source

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.

Career Ender

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.

Honors

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

Stanislav Petrov Yevgrafovich at the presentation of the award at the Semperoper in Dresden, February 17 2013
Stanislav Petrov Yevgrafovich at the presentation of the award at the Semperoper in Dresden, February 17 2013 | Source

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.

Afterword

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.

© 2012 David Hunt

Comments

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    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Right you are, stereomike83. For me the scariest part is that it came down to a guy using his intellect and common sense in the middle of chaos and false alarms. I only hope it never comes down to some nutter who just follows orders or worries about his career. Thanks for your comments.

    • stereomike83 profile image

      stereomike83 

      2 years ago from UK

      I had read about this story once but was completely unaware of the man behind it. Is scary to think this all happened in my first few days.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you, Pavlo, for your comment. I'm glad you liked it and appreciate your viewpoint very much.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Amazing story. I knew there was something like that but I did not know details. Probably this information was kept in secrecy in the USSR time. But when the Soviet Union has fallen apart, apparently none already cared about it . exciting story !

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting (and voting), nemanja (I read your profile, so I got your name right!). There's so much out there I never knew about-- that's what makes the Internet so important.

    • nemanjaboskov profile image

      Nemanja Boškov 

      6 years ago from Serbia

      Much like you, I'd never heard of this man until I saw your hub!

      Great job, and I voted accordingly!

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Larry, that would be something. I bet he could use the money. He lives on a pension, though I read he also got $1,000 from a group in San Francisco. Thanks for the comment.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      YogaKat, I agree completely. Apparently, Mr Petrov's actions have been reported in the past, but WAY WAY under-reported. That's what I like so much about HubPages-- I get to help expose what needs to be exposed in my own little way.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      I say: Let's give Petrov the next Nobel Peace Prize. Oh wait a minute; I keep forgetting that I'm not Norwegian, and don't have any pull with the Nobel Committee.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the comment, aethelthryth. Some of the engineers I know can be, let's be kind: strange. I also know some that are actually human.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 

      6 years ago from American Southwest

      I also heard this somewhere once, but have no idea where and really appreciate being reminded of it. I was told once by an Air Force missilier cadet, who was a history major in an ROTC detachment full of engineers, that the Air Force tends not to pick engineer-types for that job. If someone is going to be sitting in a missile silo, they want it to be someone of a philosophic bent, not someone who thinks it is fun to push buttons and pull knobs to see what happens.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Appreciate your comment and vote up Stigma. I understand he wasn't scheduled to be on that shift but, luckily, something happened and he was the one there.

    • Stigma31 profile image

      Stigma31 

      6 years ago from Kingston, ON

      I have heard of Petrov a long time ago. I think it was an article in a magazine, either the Washington Post, or Maclean's magazine. Thank god he had a really good sense of common sense....voting up!

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the vote up, alocsin.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 

      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Thank goodness for men like Petrov. I'm glad he was ultimately honored for saving the world. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the compliment and the comment, Larry. When I discovered Petrov yesterday, I knew I had to Hub about it. Thanks again.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Outstanding hub! Voted up and more.

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