The Man Who Saved the World

76 year old Russian Stanislav Petrov saved the world from nuclear armageddon. On Sept. 26, 1983, he was the duty officer working a double shift in command of the Russian Army missile warning system, Serpukhov-15, south of Moscow. It was just after midnight when all hell broke loose as the facilities launch detection systems triggered and displayed that a nuclear missile had been fired from the US towards Russia.

“I was on the second floor. Through the thick wall of safety glass I looked down into the operation room. The back wall of the room was covered by a large map, where the American military bases could be seen.” (Stanislav Petrov)

(Photographer: Anders Löfstedt)

An alarm blasted through the air and on top of the combat screens a panel light started flashing the word: “START,” in blood red letters.

“I saw, that a missile had been fired, aimed at us. My legs turned into cotton wraps and I felt the ground open up beneath me. I will never forget it.” (Stanislav Petrov)

His men turned their heads towards him in total confusion. He grabbed his microphone, still deaf from the sound of the alarm, and ordered them to get back to their work stations to check the computer systems and the satellite that had detected the missile launch.

(Photographer: Anders Löfstedt)

Stanislav knew that the Kremlin and the armed forces in charge of a retaliation attack, had already been notified. The atmosphere was chaotic as the alarm that kept pounding through every square inch of Serphukov-15 made it difficult to give orders and receive intel.

“The noise from the alarm was so loud you could feel it inside your body. Communication was more or less impossible.” (Stanislav Petrov)

After some few minutes Stanislav succeeded in getting someone to silence the alarm so people were able to talk, think and work. He then ordered his men to check all the functions of the advanced warning system — the satellites infrared cameras, the gigantic computer calculating the data sent from space to earth as well as the advanced military programs designed to act on the sum of the computer’s calculations. Everything appeared in working order and with growing dread it was confirmed that the system had detected a nuclear missile.

Starring at the blinking warning signs Stanislav ordered his men to check everything again and as the clock continued to run down the second round of checks again confirmed the horrible news. According to the system the nuclear attack was real!

Yet Stanislav was in doubt. Thoughts stormed through his mind. He had this gut feeling that something was wrong, despite what the system, and his men were telling him. He reasoned that if the US had launched a nuclear attack, they wouldn’t be launching just one missile. It made no sense. You don’t start WWIII with just one missile. There had to be more than one missile.

“I gave the Americans the benefit of the doubt. I made my final decision … and then I grabbed the telephone and reported a false alarm…” (Stanislav Petrov)

But as soon as Stanislav was about to hang up, the alarm blasted again. Another missile had been launched. And then another. And another. All in all five intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles were detected. Now it was up to Stanislav to make another monumental decision. The protocol was clear. The highly advanced surveillance system, were designed to be infallible. If they could not find any malfunction they must confirm the alarm with the armed forces and that would set the Soviet doomsday machinery in motion.

(Photographer: Anders Löfstedt)

Stanislav continued to defy protocol and followed his hunch. He repeated to the leadership and armed forces that the alarm was a malfunction.

“We new that this could be for real. It was off course extremely stressful. Though I had to get the men to focus on our job with maintaining all the other satellites in orbit at the same time as searching for any mistake in the systems on the satellite reporting the nuclear attack.” (Stanislav Petrov)

Despite countless checkups and re-runs of the systems, they could not find any malfunction within the advanced warning system. On the combat screens the missiles were closing in on Russia.

“We knew exactly when the forces operating the ground radars would be able to detect the missiles. That time was burned in to our memory. And we also knew that if the radars would detect the missiles it would be to late for us to retaliate against the American attack.” (Stanislav Petrov)

Stanislav had his eyes fixed on the commanders phone in front of him. If the phone rung he would know that his judgement was irrevocably wrong. The message would be that the missiles had been detected by the ground radar station and moments after that millions of Russian lives would vanish in five blinks brighter than the sun.

“I refused to be the author of WWIII … That would be my cross to bear.” (Stanislav Petrov)

The seconds passed.

Stanislav’s phone did not ring and the five nuclear missiles disappeared from the screens as suddenly as they had appeared. The room burst into celebration and loud cheers of joy.

Was Stanislav celebrated for his tough call? The unfortunate answer was no: after long interrogations and threats of imprisonment, he was not rewarded for his actions, but actually demoted. Soon after the Soviet empire imploded and Stanislav was left alone, without support for his terminally sick wife Raya and his two children.

There is a common opinion amongst leading experts on the subject matter, that Stanislav’s actions stopped a possible Soviet retaliation attack that would have meant the end of the world for most citizens living under the western hemisphere. Some also argue that Stanislav acted as a bad soldier because he defied the protocol and lead his unit according to his own gut feeling. And he probably was. Systems, and especially the big infrastructures within military, are not designed for soldiers using their own instinct to judge if an order makes sense for them to carry out or not.

As history shows big systems within military, state or private enterprise (despite failsafes and technology) can and sometimes do put us on a dangerous course. Sometimes nobody interferes and disaster happens. But as the story of the incident in Serphukov-15 proves, heroes sometimes materialise out of the chaos. Men and women who defy all training and reason because they get a hunch, that something is terribly wrong and they must do something about it.

(Photographer: David Høgsholt)

It is these often unknown and unsung heroes such as Stanislav Petrov, who show great courage and extraordinary leadership, that navigate the ship through the storm and change the fate of history, even though their heroic and ethically correct decisions are followed by great personal consequences.

What reason lay behind Stanislav’s decision: Experience, training, emotional intelligence? Was he a naturally gifted leader, was it guidance from above or the sum of his experience and skills? If you would like to know more you can check out the movie — The Man Who Saved the World — that was made about Stanislav which is releasing in Denmark and later in the year in the USA. Hopefully Stanislav’s story will inspire you to make the right decision when you have to take your next tough call.

Credits — This article was written in collaboration with Jakob Staberg & Peter Anthony from Statement Film.