Russian who prevented nuclear war dies
On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, then 44, was on overnight duty at Serpukhov-15, a bunker southwest of Moscow where early-warning satellites positioned over the US were monitored.
A red button flashed with the word “start” and the screen read “launch”.
It was saying the United States had launched a nuclear missile attack and Petrov should warn his commanders immediately. It was saying five missiles had been launched.
The Soviet policy in the event of a US nuclear attack was to launch an immediate, retaliatory strike in accordance with the principle of mutually assured destruction.
Instead Petrov reported that the warning system was faulty.
Petrov was vindicated when an internal investigation following the incident concluded the satellites had mistaken sunlight reflected on clouds for rocket engines.
At the time Soviet leader Yuri Andropov had told to his spies to look for evidence that Washington was plotting a nuclear attack. Weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had shot down the civilian Korean Airlines Flight 007 carrying 269 passengers, including 63 Americans.
The incident was only made public in 1998 in the memoirs of General Yury Vontintsev, Petrov’s commander.
Petrov died on May 19 at 77 but only when Karl Schumacher, a German activist who became Petrov’s friend, called the family did the wider world hear of his death.
A 2014 documentary “The Man Who Saved the World” detailed the incident.
Petrov told the filmmakers: “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.”
The Soviet Union refused to acknowledge his important judgement with Schumacher saying it did not want to admit its antimissile system was unreliable. In 1999 Petrov said a Soviet probe had tried to make him a scapegoat.
He said he was scolded by superiors for failing to complete routine paperwork during the incident and had been blamed by generals embarrassed by the failure of the early warning system.
His decision was largely a guess, Petrov said, based on doubts about the warning system. He knew far more than five missiles would have been launched while the ground-based radar installations were not activated.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” the former colonel said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
He left the armed forces the following year and retired outside Moscow.
Petrov was born in Vladivostok in September 1939 as the Second World War began.
The Red Army was poised for action in the early 1980s. Picture credit: Wikimedia