What would you do if you were in charge of monitoring satellites for missiles threats and saw five coming right to your country? Would you immediately send the signal to answer back with more nukes?
You know how often in action films the world is about to be nearly destroyed and one extremely talented man manages to save it at the end of the day? It’s easy to think that only happens in fiction since, well, one man to save a whole planet seems a little far-fetched, but the man from the story I'm about to tell you actually fits this scenario. Actually, he was later known as "the man who saved the world." Although his deeds remained unknown for years, he was later celebrated for his amazing bravery and serenity when facing a terrible threat. His name was Stanislav Petrov, and he was the one who saved us all, well, those who were alive at the time.
Petrov was lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. His job was to monitor the different scanners from any possible threat. Oh, by the way, we’re talking about the eighties, a moment of particular tension during the Cold War. Just three weeks before the incident in 1983, the Soviet forces had destroyed a Korean commercial flight that had flown through Russian airspace, killing all 269 passengers. The American government was outraged by this, mainly because there was a congressman among the victims, and declared that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” From this moment on, the threat of attack grew higher and Russians were afraid of an air strike.
On the morning of September 26, 1983, Petrov arrived at his office, hoping for it to be just a regular day monitoring the airspace. Just sometime after his arrival, the alarm started sounding because five missiles heading to their territory were detected. After tracing their trajectory, he found out that they were launched from the United States. According to his calculations, the time it would take for them to fall into Soviet territory was about 25 minutes. There was no time to spare. Something had to be done and he was entitled to make the decision.
He knew what he had to do. He just had to take the phone and tell his superiors to launch missiles, but something didn't seem right, and he wanted to be sure about his decision. Five minutes passed, and the tension grew in the room when he finally decided it was most likely a false alarm, and hoped his instincts hadn’t played him a cruel trick. The minutes he calculated passed, and nothing happened. He had made the right choice, and by doing so, he prevented a terrible nuclear war.
Now, what made him think it wasn’t a real strike? According to him, one of the main facts that made him doubt was the number of detected missiles. If the US wanted to start a war they wouldn’t send just five of them, they would’ve sent a whole artillery. So, instead of contacting the Soviet military immediately, as it was his job to do so, he decided to report a malfunction in the system.
Imagine what would have happened if he had just set the alarm and the Soviet army had launched a whole set of missiles to American soil? It would’ve been definitely the start of World War III, and most of us wouldn’t be here talking about this man’s good intuition. But why did his story end in oblivion?
Once the threat passed, he was praised by his superiors for his calmness and good logic, but he was then reprimanded for not following the guidelines and failing to report the incident to his superiors. All his work was suddenly forgotten. He retired from the military just one year after the incident and got a job at a research institute. However, he soon retired definitively to take care of his wife, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. He lived a life in the shadows and had even to cultivate potatoes to have something to eat. It wasn’t until 1998, fifteen years after he prevented a nuclear war, that his deeds came to light.
When General Yury V. Votintsev published his memoirs, he mentioned the great deed of Petrov during that morning of 1983. He became an instant hero to the world. He traveled and was recognized and praised for his great job tackling that incident. Even though he was never honored in his own country, his story had a huge impact in Western countries. However, he never actually asked for this. In one of the many interviews he gave, he mentioned how he didn’t really enjoy being the center of attention and how he liked leading a normal life after all.
What I like about this man’s story is how down to earth he was. When his story came out, everybody started calling him a hero and a pacifist, but he didn’t really agree with it. “What kind of soldier can be a pacifist? The idea’s absurd,” he mentioned in an interview, and he was right. So was he really a hero, or as he said, he “was just at the right place at the right time”? Perhaps both, but what’s important is that he didn’t allow the nerve-racking situation to affect him and trusted his instincts to do the right thing.
For more history, don't miss these: