This man saved the world in the 1980s, and you’ve probably never heard of him.
It was early in the morning during an overnight shift on September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Defence Forces. He was in charge of monitoring the country’s satellite system. The world was holding its breath. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were at an all-time-high. Just twenty-five days earlier, the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean plane, killing everyone on board, including a U.S. congressman.
All was quiet for most of that night – until the computer’s warning siren went off. The satellites indicated that the United States had launched five nuclear missiles. Petrov had to act quickly. If the missiles had, indeed, been launched, they would reach the Soviet Union in just over twenty minutes.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov said in a 2013 BBC interview.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
Yet something didn’t seem right. He felt it in his gut. Five missiles didn’t seem nearly enough to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He had a choice: alert his superiors, or do nothing. If he told his superiors, they would have retaliated with their own missiles, escalating the situation to nuclear war. Yet, if his gut-instinct was wrong, millions of people would die with absolutely no warning.
Even though he’d been given standing orders to report any nuclear activity, Petrov decided to trust his instinct, defy orders, and wait it out.
He turned out to be right.
This moment is considered to be one of the closest moments that the U.S. and Soviet Union came to nuclear war. It’s right up there with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Had Petrov decided to alert his superiors, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, and any survivors would be talking about the Nuclear War of 1983!
His story was not widely publicized, but after the Soviet Union collapsed, bits of the tale trickled out to the rest of the world. Petrov received several international awards during his later life. In 2015, a docudrama about him called The Man Who Saved The World was published.
Petrov died on May 19 of this year, at age 77, in a suburb just outside Moscow. News of his death hadn’t reached anybody outside Russia until now.
Despite it all, Petrov never considered himself to be a hero. Even so, he will always be remembered as the Man Who Saved The World.
“That was my job. But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.” – Stanislav Petrov