Stanislav Petrov: The man who saved the world

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Stanislav Petrov
Petrov at his house in 2016
BornStanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov
7 September 1939
VladivostokRussian SFSRSoviet Union
Died19 May 2017 (aged 77)
FryazinoRussian Federation
Known for1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident
Spouse(s)Raisa Petrov (m. 1973; died 1997)
Military career
Allegiance Soviet Union
Service/branchSoviet Air Defence Forces
Years of service1972–1984
RankLieutenant colonel

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станисла́в Евгра́фович Петро́в; 7 September 1939 – 19 May 2017) was a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces who played a key role in the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.[1] On 26 September 1983, three weeks after the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported that a missile had been launched from the United States, followed by up to five more. Petrov judged the reports to be a false alarm,[2] and his decision to disobey orders, against Soviet military protocol,[3] is credited with having prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in the Third World War and a large-scale nuclear war which could have wiped out half of the population of the countries involved. An investigation later confirmed that the Soviet satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned. Because of this incident, Petrov is often credited as having “saved the world”.[4][5][6]

Early life and military career

Petrov was born on 7 September 1939 near Vladivostok. His father, Yevgraf, flew fighter aircraft during World War II.[7] His mother was a nurse.[7]

Petrov enrolled at the Kiev Higher Engineering Radio-Technical College of the Soviet Air Forces, and after graduating in 1972 he joined the Soviet Air Defence Forces.[8] In the early 1970s, he was assigned to the organization that oversaw the new early warning system intended to detect ballistic missile attacks from NATO countries.[7][9]

Petrov was married to Raisa, and had a son, Dmitri, and a daughter, Yelena. His wife died of cancer in 1997.[7]


Main article: 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident

According to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN, nuclear retaliation requires that multiple sources confirm an attack.[10] In any case, the incident exposed a serious flaw in the Soviet early warning system. Petrov has said that he was neither rewarded nor punished for his actions.[11]

Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States,[3] precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system’s indication a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarm had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota and the Molniya orbits of the satellites, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.[12][13][14]

Petrov later indicated that the influences on his decision included that he had been told a US strike would be all-out, so five missiles seemed an illogical start;[2] that the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy; that the message passed through 30 layers of verification too quickly;[15] and that ground radar failed to pick up corroborative evidence, even after minutes of delay.[16] However, in a 2013 interview, Petrov said at the time he was never sure that the alarm was erroneous. He felt that his civilian training helped him make the right decision. He said that his colleagues were all professional soldiers with purely military training and, following instructions, would have reported a missile launch if they had been on his shift.[3]

Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his judgment. Initially, he was praised for his decision.[2] General Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Defense’s Missile Defense Units, who was the first to hear Petrov’s report of the incident (and the first to reveal it to the public in the 1990s), states that Petrov’s “correct actions” were “duly noted”.[2] Petrov himself states he was initially praised by Votintsev and promised a reward,[2][17] but recalls that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork because he had not described the incident in the war diary.[17][18]

He received no reward. According to Petrov, this was because the incident and other bugs found in the missile detection system embarrassed his superiors and the scientists who were responsible for it, so that if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished.[2][11][17][18] He was reassigned to a less sensitive post,[18] took early retirement (although he emphasized that he was not “forced out” of the army, as is sometimes claimed by Western sources),[17] and suffered a nervous breakdown.[18]

In a later interview, Petrov stated that the famous red button was never made operational, as military psychologists did not want to put the decision about a nuclear war into the hands of one single person.[19][20]

The incident became known publicly in 1998 upon the publication of Votintsev’s memoirs. Widespread media reports since then have increased public awareness of Petrov’s actions.[21][22]

There is some confusion as to precisely what Petrov’s military role was in this incident. Petrov, as an individual, was not in a position where he could have single-handedly launched any of the Soviet missile arsenal. His sole duty was to monitor satellite surveillance equipment and report missile attack warnings up the chain of command; top Soviet leadership would have decided whether to launch a retaliatory attack against the West. But Petrov’s role was crucial in providing information to make that decision.[23] According to Bruce G. Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate, formerly with the Center for Defense Information, “The top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would make a decision to retaliate.”[24][25]

Petrov later said “I had obviously never imagined that I would ever face that situation. It was the first and, as far as I know, also the last time that such a thing had happened, except for simulated practice scenarios.”[23]

Later career

In the aftermath of the incident, the Soviet government investigated the incident and determined that Petrov had insufficiently documented his actions during the crisis. He explained it as “Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand”; nevertheless, Petrov received a reprimand.[7][26]

In 1984, Petrov left the military and got a job at the research institute that had developed the Soviet Union’s early warning system. He later retired so he could care for his wife after she was diagnosed with cancer.[7] A BBC report in 1998 stated Petrov had suffered a mental breakdown and quoted Petrov as saying, “I was made a scapegoat.”[18][27]

During a visit to the United States for the filming of the documentary The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov toured in May 2007 the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and, having retired from USSR military, commented, “[he] would never have imagined being able to visit one of the enemy’s securest sites.”[28]

Petrov died on 19 May 2017 from hypostatic pneumonia, though it was not widely reported until September.[29][30][31]

Awards and commendations

On 21 May 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1,000 “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.”[32] In January 2006, Petrov travelled to the United States where he was honored in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City. There the Association of World Citizens presented Petrov with a second special World Citizen Award.[33] The next day, Petrov met American journalist Walter Cronkite at his CBS office in New York City.

That interview, in addition to other highlights of Petrov’s trip to the United States, was filmed for The Man Who Saved the World,[32][34] a narrative feature and documentary film, directed by Peter Anthony of Denmark. It premiered in October 2014 at the Woodstock Film Festival in Woodstock, New York, winning “Honorable Mention: Audience Award Winner for Best Narrative Feature” and “Honorable Mention: James Lyons Award for Best Editing of a Narrative Feature.”[35]

For his actions in averting a potential nuclear war in 1983, Petrov was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize in Dresden, Germany, on 17 February 2013. The award included €25,000.[36] On 24 February 2012, he was given the 2011 German Media Award, presented to him at a ceremony in Baden-Baden, Germany.[32][37][38]

On 26 September 2018 he was posthumously honored in New York with the $50,000 Future of Life Award.[39] At a ceremony at the Museum of Mathematics in New York, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said: “It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for humanity than all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Yet this might have occurred by accident on September 26, 1983, were it not for the wise decisions of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. For this, he deserves humanity’s profound gratitude. Let us resolve to work together to realize a world free from fear of nuclear weapons, remembering the courageous judgement of Stanislav Petrov.” As Petrov had died, the award was collected by his daughter, Elena. Petrov’s son Dmitry missed his flight to New York because the US embassy delayed his visa.[39][40]

On the same day that Petrov was first honored at the United Nations in New York City, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations issued a press release contending that a single person could not have started or prevented a nuclear war, stating in part, “Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc.”[10]

But nuclear security expert Bruce G. Blair has said that at that time, the U.S.–Soviet relationship had deteriorated to the point where “the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in US–Soviet relations.”[23] At that time, according to Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, “The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, ‘The Americans may attack, so we better attack first.'”[41]

Petrov said he did not know whether he should have regarded himself as a hero for what he did that day.[23] In an interview for the film The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov says, “All that happened didn’t matter to me—it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.'”[23]

Stanislav Petrov Day — September 26

Link to annual event:

Stanislav Petrov (2016)
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2 Responses to Stanislav Petrov: The man who saved the world

  1. admin says:

    Thanks for the correction.

    –Mike Zonta, co-editor

  2. peter hepburn says:

    the photo at the top is of vasily arkhipov not petrov

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