Stanislav Petrov had a rather unremarkable life. He was born somewhere near Vladivostok on 7 September 1939, to a military pilot and a nurse. He did well in school and later enrolled at the Kiev Higher Engineering Radio-Technical College of the Soviet Air Force. Following his father’s footsteps, he joined the Soviet Air Defence Forces and soon was assigned to ‘Oko’, a Soviet missile defence early warning programme, watching over troublesome NATO countries. He had a loving wife, a son and a daughter. It seemed like he would miss history books all together if not for a single accident, an accident that involved a possible nuclear war.
One night, or more specifically on 26 September, in the year 1983, Petrov was pushing through his usual shift, watching over monitors and gauges, making sure that nobody had decided to nuke the Soviet Union. Time moved past midnight and everything was quiet and calm. Suddenly the sirens started to howl, flashing bright red, doing their usual twists. Petrov froze, his eyes went over the monitors, there was no doubt, the United State of America had launched a missile at the Soviet Union. But it was a single missile, a single launch, a strange behaviour from the nation that got hundreds of nukes ready to go. Petrov hesitated, the official protocol stated that he should notify his superiors, but the problem was that his trigger happy bosses would probably launch a counter strike, thanks to the Soviet doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Finally, after a thoughtful consideration, he decided that it was a false alarm, an error in the system.
Petrov had only one minute to relax and think about what just happened, as the sirens went off once again, then again and again. Four more missiles were launched, all on their way to the Soviet Union. This time Petrov knew that he had to notify his superiors, but he simply could not move. Yes, there were four more missiles, but if the first one was a false alarm, then the remaining launches could be a hick up in the system as well. He waited and waited, he was an IT specialist and the pattern of the launches told him that they must have been a mistake. He checked and rechecked the system, slowly realising that he was right, but a possibility that a nuclear war was about to begin still hung over him. A long, very long twenty three minutes had passed, when Petrov finally understood that he was correct, the launches were simple errors in the system, otherwise the world would have be engulfed in fire by now.
The nuclear war was averted, the end of the world did not happen. Petrov continued living his quiet life. He did not receive a medal or got a promotion, the whole accident was duly noted and swept under a thick Soviet rug. Next year, in 1984, Petrov left the Soviet Air Defense Forces and became a researcher in the same institute that developed the faulty early warning system. For a long time nobody even knew about what had happened and what could have happened. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did the information about the accident became public knowledge. Although Petrov never received any recognition from his own government, he collected his share of awards from overseas. In 2004, he got World Citizen Award from the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens. In 2006, he received another World Citizen Award and was honoured in a meeting at the United Nations in New York. In 2012, he was honoured with German Media Award and in 2013, he was given Dresden Prize. There were many interviews and even a documentary, The Man Who Saved the World.
Stanislav Petrov died on 19 may 2017, at age of 77. There was no mourning and no news bulletin. He never thought of himself as a hero, he said he was just doing his job. But maybe, those who are just doing their jobs are the real heroes?