“My cozy armchair felt like a red hot frying pan, and my limbs went limp,” said Stanislav Petrov. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up.” The entire world’s future rested in Stanislav’s hands that night in 1983…and he chose to do nothing. “I refused to be responsible for starting World War III,” he said. “I’m not a hero. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
It was the height of the cold war. Just three weeks earlier, on September 5th, the Russians had shot down a Korean airliner carrying 269 passengers flying over Soviet soil. The reason? They thought the plane was on a spy mission. One American had been killed on that flight and America wasn’t pleased with the act. A third world war was dancing around the edges of relations between Russia and the United States and their NATO allies.
Stanislav, “forced” as a teen by his parents to join the Soviet Air Defense Forces so they wouldn’t have to feed him, was the commander the night of September 26, 1983. As lieutenant colonel, he was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early-warning command center. From his post, deep inside a secret bunker, Stanislav was responsible for determining whether the signals that came in on his early warning system were indications of war.
It wasn’t his regular post of duty. He held this job just a couple times a month to keep his skills from going rusty. So when the system showed an incoming missile from the West Coast of the United States, he nervously waited to see if anything else might indicate war. He hoped it was a possible error.
A few minutes later however, things got worse when 4 more missiles showed up. The big red light started flashing indicating him to confirm an incoming attack by pressing the big red button. That button would then inform his commanders that there was an attack, and they undoubtedly would have immediately called for a counter attack.
An attack from the Soviet Union would have been straight from the Commander in Chief of the Russian’s missile defense and his colleague who was in charge of the “nuclear suitcase”. Life would have never be the same.
Stansilav didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to be the person responsible for starting the third world war. Anything he did at that moment was potentially life altering and he knew it. Somehow, he didn’t feel comfortable pressing that big red button. He wondered about the repercussions of ignoring hard-set military rules, and taking things into his own hands.
After moments, which seemed much longer than reality, Stanislav made his decision. He told the 120 panicking military officers awaiting his orders to calm down. He chose to not press the big red button. He decided to follow his own logic, figuring that if the US was going to launch an attack on the Soviet Union, they’d do it in a much bigger way than with just five missiles.
Thankfully, for the benefit of the entire world, his decision proved to be the right one. The missile warning was an error; the US had not launched an attack.
Stanislav underwent intensive questioning about the incident from the Soviet Air Defense Forces. He was initially praised for his actions and an promised a reward.
Later, the Forces realized that publishing his actions would lead to they themselves being punished for the faulty missile detection system for which they were responsible. So, instead of public praise and reward, Stanislav was reprimanded for not recording the incident properly in his military log. He was then assigned to a less sensitive post. Though he had, in effect, saved the world from a nuclear war, the Soviet Forces classified his actions that night as top secret.
He lost his family unable to them his story–the reason behind his severe mental turmoil and nervous breakdown. The world didn’t even know what had happened so they could appreciate his brave actions in that bunker room. He he lived a very lonely life thereafter.
Stanislav never considered himself to be a hero. He lived a very quiet, simple life afterwards living on his $200 a month pension. It looked like the world would never know the story.
But, in 1998, when records were finally declassified, Stanislav’s story became public. Some members of world organizations thought he should be given the Nobel Peace prize. Others felt differently. However, in 2004, he was given a $1000 award from the Association of World Citizens for helping to avert a catastrophe.
In 2006, he received even more honor and public awareness via a trip to the United Nations in New York City, another Association of World Citizen’s award, and some interviews.
Then again, in February 17, 2013, for his actions in averting a potential nuclear war, Stanislav was given the Dresden Prize in Dresden Germany. This award included a gift of $32,000.
A film about his world-saving choice is in the works as well. Thankfully, Stanislav gets to see some thanks now for a choice that brought years of mental turmoil.
Though most of his life, he’s been poor in material goods, his wealth is unseen. He lives knowing that he made the right decision–a decision that saved the world.