He averted nuclear war but his life — and death — were shrouded in ignominy
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Sometimes heroes are not who you want them to be. Sometimes they are just grumpy old men who would rather you just go away and leave them in peace.
But peace is exactly what Stanislav Petrov guaranteed on the night of September 26, 1983. Over the space of a few minutes he made a decision that would earn him the accolade, “the man who saved the world.” He should probably have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet Petrov, who died in May 2017, at 77 is virtually unknown.
The news of his death did not even reach the outside world immediately because it was never reported. A documentarian had phoned to deliver birthday greetings to Petrov and had instead received the news of his passing from Petrov’s son, Dimitry. I learned of it shortly after the conclusion of that year’s Nuclear-Free Future Award ceremony in Basel, Switzerland, and just days before the anniversary of the moment when Petrov actually did save the world.
Without Petrov, we would have had no nuclear-free future, and likely no future at all.
Petrov was the lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces who, on the night of September 26, 1983 just happened to be in charge of monitoring his country’s satellite system that watched for a potential launch of nuclear weapons by the United States. In the early hours, such a launch appeared to have happened.
Petrov had only minutes to decide if the launch was genuine. He was supposed to report the alert up the chain of command. Doing so would almost certainly have led to a counterstrike, triggering a full-on nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Instead, Petrov hesitated. And doubted.
The alarm showed five missiles, too few for an all-out nuclear attack by the U.S. But time was of the essence. If Petrov’s doubts were misplaced and this was a real attack, his duty was to inform his superiors so a retaliatory strike could be launched.
But Petrov never made that call. Instead, he decided to check if there was a computer malfunction. This was later discovered to have been the case. A satellite had mistaken the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer system had failed to make the distinction as well.
His decision came on the heels of the shooting down of a commercial Korean airliner by the Soviet Union earlier that year. Petrov’s act of catching a mistake before catastrophe was instead viewed by Soviet officialdom as yet another embarrassment. The whole event was hushed up.
Consequently, Petrov went unheralded in his country. Worse, he was reprimanded for mistakes in his logbook and lived largely in ignominy until his death. Even then, there was no official announcement.
Because the Petrov event was classified for so long, it was the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident that gained wider attention, another close call that could have ended in our obliteration. The Norwegian-American rocket was launched to study the aurora borealis but was initially mistaken by Russian nuclear forces as a hostile nuclear launch. Then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, not known for his sobriety, went as far as opening and activating the Russian nuclear weapons command suitcase.
Yeltsin had just minutes to decide if the rocket was a high-altitude nuclear attack and launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. Fortunately, the rocket changed course, making it clear that Russia was not being targeted.
Later in life, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Petrov was finally heralded for his life-saving inaction, although by all accounts he was a highly modest man who did not necessarily welcome such accolades and attention. His story was first revealed in 1998 in a memoir by his commanding officer, Yury Votintsev.
In 2006 he received an award at the United Nations from the Association of World Citizens for “the part he played in averting a catastrophe.”
In 2013 he was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize. A 2014 docudrama by Danish director, Peter Anthony, called “The Man Who Saved The World,” featured Petrov himself, and showed encounters with actors Kevin Kostner, Matt Damon and Robert De Niro along with legendary newsman, Walter Cronkite, who warmly shook Petrov’s hand, and said “what a privilege to meet you sir, the man who saved the world.”
By all accounts, Petrov was less than thrilled to be filmed and lauded. He reportedly chucked the director and his translator out of his flat several times and thought Damon was a “small peculiar boy who is De Niro’s son, perhaps.”
Anthony found Petrov living almost like a homeless person and boiling his own leather belt in water to make soup. But, as Anthony told Daily Telegraph reporter, Colin Freeman, “I only ever really got the true story when he was angry. Then it would all come out.”
But really, he preferred to be ignored. When presented in the film with the notion that he is a hero to whom we all owe our lives, he instead bows his head and, without looking at the camera, states simply: “I am not a hero. I was just in the right place at the right time.” But what his modesty prevents him from saying is that he was also the right human being, in the right place at the right time.
Stanislav Petrov asked for nothing. Nevertheless, we owe him everything.
You may book screenings of “The Man Who Saved the World” by contacting Lightcone Pictures. Please email Christian Ditlev Bruun firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1-917-669-6357.
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