While researching At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, I discovered the story of Stanislav Petrov and his heroic deed. At the time, his was not a well known story and it took a while to stitch together the details. What struck me then was how a split second decision and an act of defiance by a person who had much to lose if he was wrong, changed the course of world history.

It was a story I was anxious to tell.

If Stanislav Petrov pressed the button there would be no turning back. It would be the start of a third world war – a nuclear holocaust

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov sat in the commander’s chair in the glass walled room of Serpukhov 15, a secret bunker just outside Moscow.  It was just past midnight, Monday, September 26, 1983 – the beginning of a new shift for 44 year-old Stanislav.

The room, as always, was a hive of quiet activity. Serpukhov-15 monitored American nuclear missile positions.  It was filled with military officers and engineers glued to computer screens spewing information gathered by satellites and radar stations across the Soviet Union.  On this night, Stanislav Petrov was the head of its operations. 

Stanislav Petrov

Tensions were high. The United States and the Soviet Union, the world’s two superpowers, were at a stand-off.  Each had a stock-pile of nuclear weapons ready to use with the press of a button.  Stanislav’s mission at Serpukhov-15 was clear.  He was to monitor American activities, detect any incoming missiles, and if the United States attacked, order an immediate counterattack. 

That night, though, all was normal in Serpukhov-15. The computers hummed quietly, their screens a soft glow of reassuring information. There was nothing to worry about. The world was at peace. For the moment.

At 12:14 a.m., Stanislav’s computer screen turned bright red. “An alarm went off.  It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave,” he said.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union built up a supply of missiles during the cold war, a period of tension between the two countries that lasted from the end of World War II and the early 1990s

The screen showed that an American missile had been launched.  It was heading their way. 

Stanislav knew what he had to do.  In fact, he’d written the procedure manual himself.  In the event of a nuclear attack by the United States, he was supposed to press a red button labeled “START”.  That would launch nuclear missiles, allowing the Soviet Union to strike before enemy missiles reached the Soviet Union and wiped them out.  

All eyes turned to Stanislav.  He hesitated.  The computer system, he knew, was riddled with flaws.  There had been questions about its reliability before.   Was this just a false alarm?  There was no way to tell.

The computer screen flickered and changed.  A second American missile had been launched from the same base, it indicated.  Then it showed a third missile, a fourth, a fifth. 

Alarms rang.  Lights flashed.  The “START” button blinked.  Stanislav had to act immediately.  If the United States had launched missiles, they would arrive in 15 minutes.  If Stanislav waited longer, it would be too late to do anything at all.

Still he hesitated.  Something didn’t seem right. “I just couldn’t believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us. Five missiles wouldn’t wipe us out. The U.S. had not five, but a thousand missiles in battle readiness.”

There was a second reason Stanislav hesitated.  It was something that he thought of every time he manned his post.  If he pressed the button, there would be no turning back.  It would be the start of a third World War, a nuclear holocaust.  Could he live with himself knowing that?

Each side feared a ‘first strike’ that would disable them before they could strike back with their own nuclear missiles

Tension mounted.  Seconds seemed to stretch into hours.  Then Stanislav grabbed the phone and placed an urgent call to his superiors.  He knew that with 5 incoming missiles showing on the screen, they would have automatically been alerted to the danger.  They’d be reviewing their battle plans, preparing to strike. 

“False alarm,” he told them. 

But was it really?  Stanislav was relying on gut instinct, not hard evidence. “I understood I was taking a big risk,” he said.

Nervous minutes passed.  No missiles arrived.  There was no nuclear destruction. 

The computer system had erred and relief settled over the room, followed by pats on the back, smiles all around, and congratulations to Stanislav for making the right call.

But although he was a hero in the room, Stanislav Petrov had crossed a fine line.  He had disobeyed orders and acted on his own. Instead of pushing the button as he was supposed to do, he’d bypassed the rules.  An inquiry was launched, and rather than being complimented for his bravery and quick-thinking, the matter was hushed and kept secret.

Exhausted from the stress of the investigation, Stanislav retired from the army and lived in poverty on a small pension, his story largely unknown.  When, in 1991, the Soviet Union crumbled and was replaced by a freer, more democratic government, his secret became public.

On May 21, 2004, Stanislav Petrov received a long overdue honour. The San Francisco based Association of World Citizens gave him its World Citizen Award in recognition of the role he played in preventing a global catastrophe.  In 2006, a documentary film, The Man Who Saved the World, was released world-wide, drawing even more attention to a hero who, until then, had largely been ignored and forgotten.

Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize at the Semper Opera in Dresden, Germany, in February 2013.

For further information:
“How I Stopped Nuclear War”, Stanislav Petrov’s interview with BBC News

Just Doing His Job’: Son Recalls Life of Soviet Colonel Heralded for Averting Nuclear War

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