One Russian man who may have saved the world 30 years ago

Former Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov sits at home on March 19, 2004 in Moscow, Russia.

Photo Story: Former Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov sits at home on March 19, 2004 in Moscow, Russia. Photo courtesy- huffingtonpost

Thirty years ago, on September 26th 1983, a Russian man Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov may have saved the world from entering the World War III. Soviet military officer Mr. Petrov was the duty officer stationed at a base near Moscow responsible for monitoring early warning system that detects missile attacks using satellites. In the early hours of the morning the system signaled several incoming missiles had been launched from the United States to strike Russia.

Instead of reporting to his superiors about the apparent missile launches by enemy, he followed his instinct that was telling him that the signals could have been false alarms.  This was a direct breach of protocols as the safest thing to do would have been to inform the higher authority immediately. And this bold decision made by Mr. Petrov may have saved the world from a nuclear holocaust as Soviet protocol said the military should respond to a nuclear attack with one of its own.

30 years after the incident he told BBC that he had all the data supporting the ongoing missile attack. “If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it” he told.

Mr. Petrov now retired as lieutenant colonel and lives in a small town near Moscow tells about the extremely tense situation he had to face in the Geo-political cold war climate of the 1983. He says, “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it”. The siren went off a minute later and then the second, third, fourth and fifth alerts followed. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’ he says.

Though he knew he needed to inform the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership without any delay, he couldn’t move. “I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan”, he told BBC.

Beside IT specialist Mr. Petrov, Soviet Union had other experts like a group of satellite radar operators who told him that they had not registered any missile. But those other people were merely a support service and the protocol clearly mentioned that the duty officer must take decisions based on computer readouts.

The strong and clear alert made Mr. Petrov suspicious as he thought that the 28 or 29 security checkpoints that the alert had to pass was not quite possible under those circumstances. So he called the duty officer in the Soviet Army’s head quarter and reported a warning system malfunction. If he was wrong, atomic bombings of USSR would have happened within minutes. Twenty three minutes later his intuitions were proved to be correct. “It was such a relief” he says with a smile.

Mr. Petrov admits after 30 years that he was never absolutely sure that it was a false alert. He thinks the odds were 50-50. Luckily he was the only officer in his team who received a civilian education. He told BBC that his colleagues were all professional soldiers and were taught to “give and obey orders”.

Few days later Mr. Petrov was officially reprimanded for his mistakes in the logbook that night. The whole incident proved serious flaw in the Soviet Army’s defense system which was according to him “shameful”. He remained silent about it for 10 years. But after the collapse of the USSR the story went public and Mr. Petrov received several international awards.

But he does not like to consider himself as a hero. He just says “That was my job. But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”


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Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE