By Alesia Miguens, for Informador público
Sometimes in history it is more important what almost happened than what really took place. And perhaps the most astonishing thing about these incredible stories of heroes, so far removed from the glamour of comic books, are the synchronicities that surround them.
This is the story of how, 32 years ago, a man that most of the world has never heard of became the biggest hero of all time for literally saving the world from an atomic apocalypse.
It was back in 1983 in the midst of the Cold War with tension as high as it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the 23rd of March, President Reagan launched his “Star Wars” programme, calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”.
And he could count on an extremely important ally, equally as decided to put an end to communism, Pope John Paul II. The planets seemed to be aligned to do away with the Soviet Union and the Soviets were taking it very seriously.
The USA and NATO were planning to put missiles in West Germany and organising military exercises in Europe among other things.
But the leaders of the USSR were from the Second World War generation and could remember perfectly well how, under the pretext of an exercise, Hitler fooled Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa.
It would have been impossible to allow history to repeat itself.
They assumed that the exercise was a cover for a real invasion, and they made their decision: to fire all their arsenal at the first sign of receiving a nuclear attack.
Tension was at its maximum. So much so that on the 1st of September 1983 the Soviet Union did not hesitate to bring down a South Korean airliner that entered their airspace by mistake, killing 269 people including a senator and several US citizens without warning.
The following episode couldn’t have come at a worse moment.
On the night of the 25th of September 1983, a 44-year old Colonel from the Military Intelligence section of the Soviet Secret Services arrived at his post at the Early Warning Centre from where Soviet aerospace defence was coordinated.
This should have been his night off. He was called in at the last minute because the colleague who should have been on duty was taken sick…
His job consisted of analysing and verifying all the data from the satellites about a possible US nuclear attack. There was a very simple and clear protocol. So clear and simple that he himself had written it.
After making the necessary verifications he should alert his superior who would immediately initiate the counter attack with a mass of nuclear missiles launched towards the USA and their allies.
Shortly after midnight, at exactly 00:14 on the 26th of September 1983, all the alert systems came to life: the sirens were blaring and the computer screens showed “imminent nuclear missile attack.”
A missile had been launched from one of the US bases.
He asked everyone to keep calm and carry on with their work. And he carried on with his.
He verified all the data and asked for confirmation by sight, the only confirmation that couldn’t be given, due to the weather conditions.
Despite the confirmation, he concluded that it must have been an error. It wasn’t logical that the USA would launch only one missile if it was attacking the Soviet Union.
And he dismissed the warning as a false alarm.
But shortly afterwards, the system showed a second missile. And then a third.
Subject to a strong rush of adrenaline, from the second floor of the bunker he could see into the operation room and the big electronic map of the USA with a blinking military base on the east coast from where the nuclear missiles had been launched.
At that moment the system showed another attack. A fourth nuclear missile, and then immediately afterwards, a fifth.
In less than 5 minutes, 5 nuclear missiles had been launched from US bases towards the USSR. The flight time of an intercontinental ballistic missile from the USA was 20 minutes.
Activity was frenetic. In the meanwhile he was analysing…
After detecting an object, the early warning system went through 29 levels of security that must be confirmed; which made him suspicious about how strongly the security level alerts were being passed.
He knew that the system could have a malfunction. But, could the whole system have been mistaken five times? Or was he facing an Armageddon?
The basic principle of the Cold War strategy had been a massive nuclear launch, an overpowering and simultaneous force of hundreds of missiles, not 5 missiles one by one. It had to be an error.
But what if it wasn’t? If it was an intelligent US strategy? Was the terrifying holocaust underway and he was going to do nothing?
He had five intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles heading towards the USSR and only 10 minutes to take the decision of “who to inform” in the Soviet leadership… Being perfectly aware that if he informed them about what the systems were confirming, World War III would be unleashed.
The 120 military officials and engineers waited for his decision with their eyes fixed on him.
Never before in history, nor afterwards, was the luck of the world in the hands of one man as in those 10 minutes. The future of the world, or not, depended on his decision, while he fought with himself if he should or should not press the “red button”.
He thought: the USA still doesn’t have the missile defence system and they know that a nuclear attack against the USSR would mean the immediate annihilation of their own population. And although he didn’t trust them, he knew they weren’t suicidal. He said to himself: “That great imbecile hasn’t been born yet, not even in the USA.”
Knowing full well that if he was mistaken, an explosion 250 times greater than the one over Hiroshima would happen to them a few minutes later and they would be unable to do anything about it, he was able to keep his head, have the courage to listen to his instincts and adjust to the logical conclusion that told him to use common sense.
And so he decided to report a system malfunction.
Paralysed and sweating buckets, he and the 120 men in his charge counted down the minutes for the missiles to reach Moscow.
Then suddenly, seconds before, the sirens stopped blaring and the warning lights went out.
He had taken the correct decision. And he saved the world from a nuclear cataclysm.
His comrades, dripping in sweat, launched themselves on him to hug him and to proclaim him a hero.
He collapsed in his seat and drank over half a litre of vodka without breathing. At the end of the night he slept for 28 hours non-stop.
When he returned to work, his colleagues gave him a Russian-made portable TV as a thank you present. Everyone was alive thanks to the decision that he had taken.
When his superior found out what had happened, he was told that he would be honoured for having avoided catastrophe and that he would propose to create a day in his honour.
But it didn’t happen.
The Soviet Union couldn’t let the USA and the people at home find out what had happened.
He was reprimanded for not following protocol. He was transferred to a more junior role. And soon afterwards he was given early retirement.
He lived the rest of his life in an extremely modest two-room apartment in the suburbs of Moscow, surviving on a miserable pension of 200 US$ per month, in absolute loneliness and anonymity.
Until 1998 when his Commander-in-Chief, Yury Votintsev, present that evening, revealed what took place – the so-called “Autumn Equinox Incident” caused by an extremely rare astronomical conjunction – in his memoirs which by chance reached the hands of Douglas Mattern, President of the international peace organisation, “Association of World Citizens.”
And after verifying such an amazing story Mattern went in search of this anonymous hero to which we all are indebted for still being in this world, in order to give him the “World Citizen Award.”
The only clue about where to find him Mattern got was from a Russian journalist who told him that he would have to go to see him without an appointment because his phone wasn’t working and neither was his doorbell.
To find a trace of the man in a row of enormous grey housing complexes 50 kilometres from Moscow wasn’t easy.
One of the neighbours he asked said, “You must be mad. If there really had existed someone who had ignored a warning of a US nuclear attack he would have been executed. In those days there was no such thing as a false alarm in the Soviet Union. The system never made mistakes, only people did.”
Finally the man was found on the second floor of one of the buildings. Unshaven and taken off guard he nodded his head. “Yes, that’s me. Come in.”
“I felt as if I had met Jesus when he opened the door,” Mattern said.
“However, he was living like a homeless person. Limping with swollen feet, unable to walk much and forcing himself to stand up, he said that he only went out to go shopping.”
Besides telling the story more or less as I’ve just told it, this man said to Mattern, “I don’t consider myself a hero; only an official who did his duty in a moment of great danger for humanity. I was the right person in the right place at the right time.”
“In a world so full of vain people who ‘try’ to save something when in reality the only thing they do is damage others and the planet; in a world so full of misery, pettiness, egos, greed and ambition; the humbleness of this man and his indifference towards fame and importance is profoundly gratifying,” said Mattern
After finding out about this event, experts from the USA and Russia calculated what would have been the extent of the devastation according to the arsenals they had at that time and would have launched.
And they came to the conclusion that between 3 and 4 billion people, directly and indirectly were saved by the decision taken by that man on that night.
“The face of the earth would have been disfigured and the world as we know it would have come to an end,” said one of the experts.
- The World Citizen Award, 21st May 2004.
- An award from the Australian Senate, 23rd June 2004.
- He was honoured at the United Nations on the 19th January, 2006. He said that it was “his happiest day in many years.”
- In Germany, in 2011 he was given the German Media Award, which recognises people who have made significant contributions to World Peace, for having avoided a potential nuclear war.
- He received an award in Baden Baden on the 24th of February 2012.
- He was awarded the Dresden Prize in 2013.
- And Keven Costner made the documentary “The Man Who Saved the World”.
Today, he still lives in relative anonymity in his small apartment on the outskirts of Moscow with his small pension of 200 US$ a month. He gave the best part of his prize money to his family and kept a small amount to buy a new vacuum cleaner that he had dreamt about, only for it to turn out to be defective.
When I heard about this story, the first thing that I thought was, when his neighbours – or anyone who dismisses him – see him, do they ever realise that they, their family, their descendants and friends are here because of him?
If when they see the news and everything that happens in the world, do they ever say to themselves that all of this happened because of the decision that he took in those 10 minutes?
If when they look at the sunrise or sunset, do they ever think that so many people can also do so because of him?
And I ask myself how much Dharma could a human soul gain that saved billions of human beings, plants and animals: a planet?
This little old man who lives in a miserable two-room apartment in the Moscow suburbs on 200 miserable dollars a month saved the world and nobody knows it.
How is it possible that after 32 years so few people in the world know about him?
It’s inconceivable and very unfair.
That’s why, in this new anniversary of the common sense decision that saved the world, I only want that people know about the man who took it: Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov.