When the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a point where the two countries nearly used nuclear weapons against each other, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov averted a potential nuclear war. Ironically, has passed away without fanfare aged 77.
The incident, which made the Russian colonel one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War, happened on the midnight of 26 September, 1983. Petrov, who was on duty at an early missile warning system on the outskirts of Moscow, saw the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States.
Once the missiles were launched, Kremlin had only 30 minutes to decide to retaliate. However, instead of reporting the messages indicating several missiles had been launched to his superiors, he dismissed them as a false alarm. This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty; but his decision saved the world as the protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
Petrov told RT in 2010:
“When I first saw the alert message, I got up from my chair. All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic. I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.
“The radar was showing a single missile inbound from the United States. Now the race was on: was it real or a computer error? My boss accepted over the phone it was a likely fault. But as soon as he hung up, the siren went off for a second time. Giant blood-red letters appeared on our main screen, saying START. It said that four more missiles had been launched.
“To me, it did not add up. Any attack by the US would have been all-out to try and cripple a Soviet response. But if they were real, I had only 30 minutes to tell my superiors before the warheads hit. My cozy armchair felt like a red hot frying pan and my legs went limp. I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was when I was taking this decision.”
Petrov stuck to his decision, broke a Soviet military rule, and was proved right. There were no missiles; the Soviet satellites mistook the reflection from the clouds as a missile launch and the automated system raised an alert.
Although he saved the world, Petrov did not get any praise. In fact, he was scolded, reprimanded for mistakes in the logbook, and was forced to remain silent for the next 10 years. But in 1998, general Yury Votintsev, published his memoirs and revealed his role in saving the world from thermonuclear conflict.
In the following years, Petrov achieved worldwide recognition for his actions. He was honoured by the Association of World Citizens at the UN headquarters in 2006 as “the man who averted a nuclear war”. In 2013, he was awarded the prestigious Dresden peace prize, but the Russian army never gave him a medal.