When alarms began to ring and a control panel flashed in front of Stanislav Petrov, a 44-year-old lieutenant-colonel seated in a secret bunker south of Moscow, it appeared that the world was less than 30 minutes from nuclear war.
“The siren howled,” he later said, “but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.” His chair, he said, began to feel like “a hot frying pan”.
Petrov, an official with Russia’s early-warning missile system, was charged with determining whether the United States had opened intercontinental fire on the Soviet Union. Just after midnight on 26 September 1983, all signs seemed to point to yes.
The satellite signal Petrov received in his bunker indicated that a single Minuteman missile had been launched and was headed east. Four more missiles appeared to follow, according to satellite signals, and the protocol was clear: notify Soviet Air Defence headquarters in time for the military’s general staff to consult with Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader. A retaliatory attack, and nuclear holocaust, would likely ensue.
Yet Petrov, juggling a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, judged that the red alert was a false alarm. Soviet missiles, armed and ready, remained in their silos. And American missiles, apparently minutes from impact, seemed to vanish into the air.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov told The Washington Post in 1999. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He celebrated with half a litre of vodka, fell into a sleep that lasted 28 hours and went back to work.
While the “50-50” decision may have averted catastrophe, it ultimately destroyed the career of Petrov, who died on 19 May at his home in Fryazino, a centre for scientific research near Moscow. His death – much like the defining moment of his life – went largely unreported until his friend, the political activist Karl Schumacher, announced that he heard the news from Petrov’s son, Dmitri, and that Petrov had been sick for the last six months with “an internal disease”.
The colonel’s brush with history came six months after US President Ronald Reagan christened the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and just three weeks after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 wandered into Soviet airspace and was shot down, deteriorating US-Soviet relations even further.
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