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Stanislav Petrov: the Ignominious End of the Man Who Saved the World

I just returned from the Nuclear-Free Future Awards in Basel, Switzerland, which this year were held in conjunction with a conference on Human Rights, Future Generations & Crimes In The Nuclear Age. The conference was hosted by IPPNW Switzerland. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War won the Nobel peace prize in 1985.

Fortunately, we can still envisage a nuclear-free future. In Basel, we honored individuals who have devoted their lives to ensuring that vision. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Award. Let’s hope we can still talk then about a future that is nuclear-free.

The signing this week of the UN global nuclear weapons ban treaty is a hopeful step in the right direction. Although ignored by the nuclear weapons states, it brings the issue back to the international spotlight, introducing an unprecedented stigmatization of nuclear weapons within an international legal framework. It’s not perfect, but a necessary first step.

Ironically, the day I returned from Basel, the news broke of the death of Stanislav Petrov. He had died on May 19, but we were only hearing about it now because it was never reported. A German documentarian had phoned to deliver birthday greetings to Petrov and had instead received the news of his passing from Petrov’s son, Dimitry.

Without Petrov, we would have had no nuclear-free future and likely no future at all. He is possibly the single most entitled winner of the Nuclear-Free Future Award, although sadly it was never extended to him. Perhaps it can be offered posthumously. This would be a break with tradition, but it is worth giving pause to his contribution.

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 suggested 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.

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, resulting in then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, not known for his sobriety, 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.

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 Danish docudrama called Petrov “the man who saved the world.” When interviewed for the film, he said, “I am not a hero. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Next Tuesday will mark the fourth year of the UN’s Nuclear Abolition Day, a not uncoincidental choice of date.

Stanislav Petrov asked for nothing. Nevertheless, we owe him everything.

More articles by:

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She can be contacted at linda@beyondnuclear.org.

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