Monday, December 20, 2004


The Russian who averted a nuclear war

This is a fascinating story, which I have never heard of before. It shows the limits of technology and the importance of the human element.
Man who saved America now living quiet life in Russia

By Mark McDonald, Knight Ridder Newspapers

FRIAZINO, Russia - The man who saved America - and probably the world - is living out his days on a measly pension in a dank apartment in a forlorn suburb of Moscow. He has a bad stomach, varicose veins and a mangy, spotted dog named Jack the Ripper.

Stanislav Petrov has a small life now. He takes Jack for walks, makes a medicinal tea from herbs he picks in a nearby park and harangues his 34-year-old son about getting off the computer and finding a girlfriend.

There was a time when Petrov, now 65 and a widower, was almost larger than life. He was a privileged member of the Soviet Union's military elite, a lieutenant colonel on the fast track to a generalship. He was educated, squared away and trustworthy, and that's why he was in the commander's chair on Sept. 26, 1983, the night the world nearly blew apart.

Tensions were high: Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 1, Soviet fighters had shot down a Korean airliner, killing all 269 people aboard.

Petrov was in charge of the secret bunker where a team of 120 technicians and military officers monitored the Soviet Union's early warning system. It was just after midnight when a new satellite array known as Oko, or The Eye, spotted five U.S. missiles heading toward Moscow. The Eye discerned they were Minuteman II nuclear missiles.

Petrov's computer was demanding that he follow the prescribed protocol and confirm an incoming attack to his superiors. A red light on the computer saying START! kept flashing at him. And there was this baleful message: MISSILE ATTACK!

Petrov had written the emergency protocol himself, and he knew he should immediately pick up the hotline at his desk to tell his military superiors that the Motherland was under attack. He also knew the timeline was short. The senior political and military chiefs in the Kremlin would have only 12 minutes or so to wake up, get to their phones, digest Petrov's information and decide on a counterattack.

As the alarms blared, 80 technicians and 40 military officers jumped up and looked toward Petrov's command post on a mezzanine overlooking the gymnasium-sized control room. He shouted into an intercom for them to take their seats and attend to their work. "I was not sweating," Petrov said, "but I felt very weak in my legs. Like our Russian saying goes, I had legs of cotton. I was in a stupor, but then my feeling of duty took over."

Petrov gathered himself and looked at the data coming from The Eye. Why only five missiles? That didn't fit with either his training or his logic. He knew that if the United States were going to launch a first strike, it would unleash hell, with hundreds of missiles. "Political relations with the United States couldn't have been any worse at the time," he said. "But to launch such an attack, one would have to be completely crazy."

So Petrov called his superiors and reported in a firm voice that it was a false alarm, no attack.

The next 15 minutes, waiting for the Minutemen to possibly hit, were unnerving.

Soviet engineers eventually discovered that The Eye had sounded the alarm when it spotted what it thought was the engine flare from five U.S. missiles. But what had the satellite really seen? Flashes of sunlight reflecting off some clouds over Minuteman silos in Montana.

No decorations or rewards have been given to the officers who averted the nuclear catastrophe. Petrov, who'd gone through the crisis with an intercom to his staff in one hand and the telephone to his bosses in the other, was later reprimanded for not filling out his log book as events unfolded. He was denied further promotion, but Petrov denies that he was persecuted by his military bosses and Soviet political commissars. He said he continued to work command shifts in the bunker.

Petrov left the military in 1984, moved to a technical division that worked on satellites, then retired in 1993 to care for his ailing wife. When she died of a brain tumor, he said, "I had to borrow the money to bury her properly." To repay the loan, he worked as a security guard at a construction site.
This is a footnote to history - a historian is more interested in the patterns that led to the situation in which one man could end up being so influential - but what a footnote!

(Knight-Ridder has an article today on other Cold War close calls.)
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