Stanislav Petrov: the man who saved the world

At the height of the Cold War, this man was forced to make a decision that could have caused a nuclear holocaust. What he did next was truly heroic…

Peter Iantorno March 5, 2015

It's September 26, 1983, and all is quiet as Stanislav Petrov, a duty officer at the Serpukhov-15 Soviet Air Defence Force Command Centre near Moscow, works the graveyard shift, monitoring the early warning system designed to alert the Soviets of incoming nuclear attacks.

It's dull work, but with the Cold War ongoing, and relations between the Soviets and the U.S. strained to the extreme, Petrov is acutely aware that an American nuclear attack could come at any time, so his eyes remain fixed on the giant, wall-length screen, alert to the slightest change or signal that could indicate an incoming missile.

As the clock ticks past midnight, suddenly the silence is broken by the shrill, piercing sound of the missile warning alarm. An attack has been launched! Petrov's eyes widen in disbelief as he's stunned by a cacophony of blaring sirens and flashing lights. For a moment he's frozen on the spot, unable to process the enormity of what he's just seen - according to the computer, a nuclear missile has been launched from the U.S. and it is on course to hit Moscow in just 28 minutes.

Petrov takes a deep breath and tries to remember his training. If the system detects an incoming attack, it is his duty to immediately call his superiors and notify them, so they have time to launch a counter offensive before the missile hits. The instructions are explicit, but for some reason Petrov remains frozen, unable to pick up the phone. Stanislav Petrov the man who saved the world. A minute later, the siren increases its intensity, becoming shriller and even more piercing. A second, a third, a fourth and a fifth missile have been detected, and they are all on their way to Moscow. Petrov's screen now reads "MISSILE STRIKE", and is displaying the highest possible alert, indicating with absolute certainty that America has launched an attack.

Petrov has to do something, but still he can't move. Twelve incredibly long and incredibly valuable minutes pass, and Petrov still can't make up his mind. If he notifies his superiors about the attack now, they may still have time to react, but all he can do is think about the enormity of what making that phone call would mean for the world: all-out nuclear war.

Countless questions race through Petrov's mind. Is the system definitely accurate? How could the Americans be so heartless as to use nuclear weapons on innocent people? And, more to the point, why would they be so foolish as to launch only five missiles when they had hundreds, knowing full well that the Soviets would react with a devastating counter attack?

With all these doubts still ringing in his ears, Petrov finally breaks free from his frozen state and picks up the phone. "This is Duty Officer Stanislav Petrov calling from Serpukhov-15," he says. "I need to report a system malfunction."

Stanislav Petrov the man who saved the world. Thankfully for the world, Petrov had managed to compose himself enough to make an informed decision that the U.S. hadn't launched an attack and it was more likely a mistake from the system. He took into account the fact that the system was still new and relatively untested, but the really big deciding factor was that, in his opinion, any initial attack from the U.S. would be massive, so them launching just five missiles made no sense at all.

Of course we all now know that his decision was the right one - there was never any attack from the U.S. and the alert was, in fact, caused by a rare alignment of sunlight deflected off the Earth into the Soviet satellites. But for those 10 minutes or so after he elected to report a fault in the system, rather than an incoming attack, Petrov had no idea if he and his country was about to be blown to smithereens.

The episode was a triumph of human reasoning over artificial intelligence, but despite his clear thinking under pressure, initially Petrov was not rewarded for his actions, rather, he was interrogated about the incident and then reprimanded for neglecting to fill out his paperwork properly after such a hectic and harrowing experience.

A source of embarrassment for the Soviets, the incident was quickly brushed under the carpet, and Petrov kept his silence for some 10 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, after the Union fell, General Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Missile Defence Units, released his memoirs, in which he made reference to Petrov's decision. The story was picked up by the media, awareness raised and as a result Petrov finally received the praise he so deserved, being awarded various honours and given special commendations both in the US and around the world. Stanislav Petrov the man who saved the world. He even appeared in his very own film, The Man Who Saved The World (trailer below), which, amazingly, features Hollywood big-hitters Robert De Niro, Matt Damon and Kevin Costner. The film, which premiered at the 2014 Woodstock Film Festival in New York, finally told the story of a real life hero who, through his cool head under pressure, really did save the world.

Speaking in the film, the humble Russian says, "I'm not a hero. I was just at the right place at the right time." He might not think he's anything special, but after years of silence, it's fitting that Petrov has finally been recognised as a true hero, even if he won't admit to it.