In September 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov single-handedly prevented an all-out Nuclear War. Yet for most people, this will be the first time they have heard his name mentioned at all.
In the early 1980’s, the world was enduring what became known as the ‘Second Cold War’, in which the geopolitical tensions between the Eastern Bloc (Soviet Union and allies) and the Western Bloc (USA, NATO and allies) left the world on the edge of self-destruction. Both sides had heavily militarised after events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and had hundreds of Nuclear Missiles in place, ready to be fired at the opposition side.
Stanislav Petrov was born in 1939 into a military family and later enrolled at the Kiev Higher Engineering Radio-Technical College of the Soviet Air Force. He was assigned to the organization that oversaw the new early warning system intended to detect ballistic missile attacks from NATO countries in the early 1970s.
The incident concerned occured on the evening of the 26th September 1983. Petrov was the commanding officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 defence bunker, near Moscow. After 10pm, Petrov received a signal confirming an American Nuclear attack. A siren alarmed, and his status radar showed a single rocket had been launched. His team had just 28 minutes until impact to confirm the authenticity of the signal; 30 levels of security checks had to be carried out before it was passed on. All 30 levels had been passed, and it appeared almost certain that nuclear war had begun. The system showed another 4 missiles had been launched, and a rocket attack sign appeared on the overhead displays. As soon as Petrov made a decision and passed it on to his superiors, it was likely that a counter-strike would have been utilised, and all the missiles in place (on both sides of the war) would have been fired. But Petrov hesitated. His gut instinct was that the signals were incorrect and the system was failing. He decided to clarify the detections as false alarms. 11 minutes passed, and a sigh of relief uttered. It was actually a precise reflection of sunlight that tripped the system and Petrov’s hesitation had saved the world.
‘The danger was, that as soon as I made a decision that this rocket was real, the rest of the chain of command could have been hypnotised by my conclusions’
-Stanislav Petrov, from documentary series ‘Strange Rituals’
There are two reasons why Petrov went against all the signals and technology. Firstly, despite the 30 security levels being passed, there had been no visual confirmation from the Russian satellites, and Petrov was certain that if missiles had been fired, they would have been picked up by the satellites. Also, if the USA was to carry out an attack, it was likely that they would fire many more than just 5 nuclear warheads. However, it was still an enormous risk to take.
It was estimated that without the actions of Stanislav Petrov, half of the worlds population could have been wiped out. A nuclear holocaust would have occured, making much of the Earth’s habitat uninhabitable and in the long term, damaging the Human Race as a whole. He has since been recognised with the World Citizen Award, being honored at a United Nations meeting, the 2013 Dresden Prize and the German Media Award.
‘It was my job. I was simply doing my job’
-Stanislav Petrov, in an interview for the ‘Man who saved the World’ feature film.
By Kieran Kelly