On September 26, 1983, Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov, during his shift at the command post in Serpukhov-15 anti-aircraft defense base, literally prevented a nuclear war.
On the night of September 26, the new ballistic missile detector system reported five intercontinental missiles had been launched from US territory. Petrov had 10 minutes to make the decision about whether it truly was an American missile attack and the start of a nuclear war, or – which it ultimately turned out to be – a false alarm, brought about by the improper functioning of the satellite. “A siren was wailing, red letters on the control panel were flashing. The shock was immense,” the officer recalls. “Everyone jumped off their seats, looking at me. And what was I supposed to do? I had to act in compliance with the regulations which I, myself, had written.”
However, giving the extraordinary situation more thought, Petrov ultimately decided to ignore the alert, classifying it as a fault in the computer system. He inferred that in case of a real nuclear war, the United States should have fired many more missiles from several military bases, instead of just one. “Three or four minutes isn’t really enough time for a thorough analysis,” Petrov contemplates. “It’s all intuition.
Number one: a missile attack would never be waged from only one base. Number two: computers are dumb by definition – who knows what they might mistake for a missile launch…” Though many foreign experts gave the event a lot of attention, Petrov refers to the Western coverage with humor, “Many foreign journalists made such drama out of that night… I read in the English newspaper that after everything settled down, the officer, sitting right by the control panel, drank half a liter of vodka and passed out for 28 hours…. In Serpukhov-15 alcohol was prohibited, just an occasional beer. And I didn’t get to sleep for several more days, as the investigation started…”
The pressure Petrov had to handle was immense, as the international situation at the moment was indeed critical. Americans were about to introduce Pershing II missiles into production, capable of reaching Moscow in 12 minutes from West Germany. In March, President Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and began the Star Wars program. The Soviet leader, Yury Andropov, was convinced the United States would strike first. If Stanislav Petrov had sent the warning to Andropov, the Soviet leader would very likely have pushed the red button.
The investigation revealed that the detector system had reacted to solar flares from the sun, which it had mistaken for the fiery tales of missiles. Immediately after the incident, the system was fixed and the incident was classified. The information on the event only became public in 1998, and was allowed to be discussed in the media in 2004. While heavily publicized in the West, in Russia this story remained unpopular: on the one hand, the world was rescued, but in the other hand, the regulation had been violated.
Back in Serpukhov-15, when nothing was yet clear, Petrov was even reprimanded by authorities for violating the regulations and not filling out the daily log. The officer, himself, doesn’t blame his superiors, “If they awarded me for that case, someone had to be punished. And the first ones on the list were the engineers who had created the missile detector systems, all of who were academicians, allowing billions of rubles for the project. I am happy I didn’t do time…”
He did get his award, but 23 years after his feat. The Association of the Citizens for Peace awarded him with a crystal statuette, entitled “The Hand Holding the Globe” at UN headquarters in New York, for “prevention of a nuclear war.”