31 years ago today Stanislav Petrov made a decision that prevented a global nuclear war. A decision that would be kept secret until 1998, when he became known as ‘The man that saved the world’. Here is his story.
In the height of the Cold War in 1983 Stanislav Petrov was a Soviet military officer, stationed in a military bunker near Moscow. He was in charge of an early warning system that was made to detect a nuclear missile attack from the United States on Soviet territory.
Not long after midnight on 26 September the system detected a US missile headed for the Soviet Union, then another, and another, until the computers were suggesting a massive nuclear missile attack was on its way.
With the sirens wailing Stanislav was losing valuable time. His job was to report this directly to his superiors who would make a decision on what to do next, but he was hesitant.
Although the message from the warning system was very clear, Stanislav had his doubts. It was the nature of the warning that had made him suspicious – he wasn’t sure a real attack would have had such a strong, clear alert, as he later told the BBC:
“There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those ‘checkpoints’. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances”
As the duty officer it was up to Stanislav to make the decision. At this period in the Cold War tensions were high. He knew that if he launched a ‘retaliatory’ strike it would almost certainly be met with a huge response from the US.
He had to decide if the alert was real. If it was, it would only be minutes until the missiles exploded in his home country. If it were not, his decision to report an attack could lead to the death of thousands of innocent people.
Stanislav made a call to his superiors and told them there was a system malfunction.
After the call he still did not know if he had made the right choice, he just had to wait and see.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”
Despite his decision saving many lives, Stanislav had disobeyed his orders to immediately report a warning of this nature. After interrogation he was moved to a less ‘sensitive’ role and shortly after retired from the military.
Today, despite his story being re-told recently in a Hollywood movie, many people have still never heard of Stanislav Petrov, but without him, many of us may never have been here today. He doesn’t consider himself a hero though, just that he was lucky to be ‘in the right place, at the right time’.