The Soviet chess enthusiast who saved the world
Twenty-five years ago this week, a Russian soldier averted a nuclear holocaust, writes Philip Jacobson
When Lt Col Stanislav Petrov arrived to work the graveyard shift at the secret command bunker near Moscow from which the Soviet Union's early warning satellites were monitored, he was anticipating another routine stint of checking screens and communications systems, with a few chess problems to help pass the time.
But shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, alarms started blaring and a red button on the console in front of Petrov began to flash the single word: "Start". This signified that an American ballistic missile had been launched and was heading towards the USSR: then the computers linked to the satellites reported that four more missiles were on the way.
As commander of the bunker, Petrov, a 44-year-old rocket specialist, was responsible for deciding whether the horrifying launch data was accurate. If it was, standing orders required immediate notification of the Soviet high command, which would then consult the Kremlin about initiating a swift and massive retaliatory strike against the US. "For 15 seconds we were all in a state of shock," Petrov recalled years later. "We needed to understand with absolute certainty what came next."
After five minutes of frantic activity, with his staff begging him to stay cool, Petrov concluded that the incoming launch reports were almost certainly false. A central tenet of the USSR's Cold War strategy held that any nuclear attack by America would involve the simultaneous launch of hundreds of missiles. In Petrov's judgment, nobody would carry out a first strike with just five: he was also aware the system had a history of malfunctioning. "My gut feeling was that we were experiencing another systems failure, so I made the decision to report a false alarm."
Petrov's hunch was subsequently confirmed by an official investigation: the satellite alerts that might have created a nuclear holocaust were triggered by an unusual combination of sunlight and high-altitude cloud formations, wrongly interpreted by the computers as a missile launch.
But although Petrov's conduct under intense pressure initially drew high praise from superiors - there was talk of a medal - an official investigation later accused him of serious disciplinary offences. Petrov was formally reprimanded, demoted and shuffled into a much less responsible post. Convinced he had been made a scapegoat for exposing flaws in the early warning network, he chose to take early retirement and, by some accounts, suffered a nervous breakdown.
It was not until the late-1990s, as President Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) took hold, that the story of that dramatic night in the bunker became public knowledge in Russia. An American expert on Soviet defence doctrines during the Cold War described the incident as "the closest we've come to an accidental nuclear conflict". Contemporary US intelligence reports indicated that the then Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, and his top brass were extremely nervous about the possibility that President Ronald Reagan might authorise a devastating first strike against what he had famously dubbed "the evil empire".
By then, Petrov was surviving on a meagre military pension in a squalid apartment block in a town near Moscow, drinking too much and mourning the death of his devoted wife from cancer. He would tell Western journalists that he did not consider himself a hero, just a conscientious officer who did his duty at a moment of great peril for mankind.
Yet within a few years, as word spread of his role in averting what could have become a global catastrophe, he was being feted in the West. In May 2004, the US-based Association of World Citizens awarded him a trophy and $1,000: two years later, health seemingly restored, he was invited to UN headquarters in New York to receive a second award.
Twenty-five years on, a documentary film about Petrov - working title The Man Who Saved The World - is being prepared. It is due for release next summer. ·