Article from
The Moscow News

This article first appeared on The Moscow News Web site May 29, 2004.

On the Brink

The Moscow News
May 29, 2004

More than 20 years ago, Stanislav Petrov saved the world from a thermonuclear war. Russia still prefers to overlook his heroic feat.

By Yuri Vasilyev

He was supposed to push the button. Because all the signs were that the U.S. had launched a missile attack against the Soviet Union.

It was his duty to push the button. After all, he — Stanislav Petrov — was the one who had written the instructions prescribing that particular course of action.

But he did not push it.

Judgment Night

“Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism.” Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, now in retirement, is tired of talk about the “forgotten hero of the Cold War.” He simply did his duty, he says. “I was in the right place at the right moment.”

The “right moment” was the night of September 26, 1983. It was a time of phrases like “the Evil Empire” coming from one side, and “the U.S. missile-rattling military clique” from the other, plus the South Korean Boeing just downed [by a Soviet fighter over Kamchatka]. In short, a near crisis point.

The “right place” was Serpukhov-15, a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) command and control post — the forward air defense line set up to detect U.S. Minutemen at launch, as they just emerged from their silos.

“We gave the country’s leadership some time for consideration — 10 to 12 minutes. In the remaining 15 minutes it would have been too late to deliberate. Orders had to be issued for missiles to rotate their gyroscopes and enter flight tasks.”

Lt. Col. Petrov was not a regular T/O operations duty officer at the BMEWS command and control post. It was simply that he — as well as other analysts at the Serpukhov-15 facility — was to man a shift at the control panel in that capacity twice a month, just to keep his skills from getting rusty.

“The huge screen shows U.S. territory — satellite aerial imagery,” Petrov describes the familiar scene. “But simply watching it is not enough for decision-making. It takes an impartial judge. That is to say, the computer.”

On the night of September 26, the electronic umpire apparently decided that it was time to pass the sentence and so alerted Petrov and his fellow officers to a launch:  A missile had apparently been launched from a U.S. base.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock,” the lieutenant colonel admits. “Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems — on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in:  All is correct; the probability factor is two.”

“What does that mean?”

“The highest,” analyst Petrov smiles the smile of an intellectual.

About two years ago, a group of U.S. journalists were treated to the same kind of smile as they urged him to identify the base where a Russian satellite had detected the launch: “What difference does it make? Had we gone ahead, there would be no America now.” Back then, in 1983, it was not about just one launch. The computer — a purportedly impartial judge — signaled a second, third, and fourth launch from the same base. This already fell under the definition of “missile attack.” A new alert flashed on the screen and the alarm went a pitch higher. To make matters worse, nothing could be observed in the optical, non-IR, band — Murphy’s law must have kicked in.

In other words, duty officer Petrov had a limited choice of options:  Either push the button, and then the final decision would have to be made by General Secretary Andropov with his nuclear briefcase, knowing that some 15 minutes later, the U.S. missiles would have reached the country’s territory, or to report up the command chain: “We’re giving the wrong signals,” and face the consequences — provided that there would still be someone left to face them.

“You can’t possibly analyze things properly within a couple of minutes,” Petrov reasons 20 years later. “All you can rely on is your intuition. I had two arguments to fall back on. First, missile attacks do not start from just one base. Second, the computer is, by definition, brainless. There are lots of things it can mistake for a missile launch.”

Judging by the fact that we were sitting there talking, Lt.Col. Petrov had exercised the second option. Although, according to Bruce Blair, director of the U.S. Center for Defense Information, “this is the closest we’ve come to accidental nuclear war.”

“I heard that,” Petrov says. “He ought to know. Although your Western colleagues wrote such a load of crap about that night. Say, a British paper reported that after it was over, I ‘gulped down half a liter of vodka and slept for 28 hours.’”

“You mean you didn’t?”

“There was a ‘dry law’ in force at Serpukhov-15:  Only beer was available in the residential area, and then not always. And I didn’t get any sleep for several days. Because there were all sorts of commissions to deal with.”


Stripped of technical jargon, the situation could be described like this: a computer error. That is to say, it was on the whole OK, and the 30 protection levels were there all right, but with a certain confluence of circumstances, in certain orbits, with a certain angle of satellite camera lens, and in the IR band — well, in short, it was a snafu involving an unknown number of megatons, which Stanislav Petrov describes as “God’s own joke out of outer space.”

But back then, at Serpukhov-15, before the problem was straightened out, the high-level commission went straight for Lt.Col. Petrov. Col. Gen. Yuri Votintsev, commander in chief of the USSR Missile and Air Defense Forces, in person went for him in a big way.

“As soon as he arrived at the headquarters, Votintsev promised to put me in for a decoration, but then he put the squeeze on me: ‘How come your operations log at the time is not filled in?’” the lieutenant colonel recalls. “I told him that I had a phone in one hand, to report the situation up the command chain, and an intercom in the other, to issue orders to subordinates. Therefore, I was physically unable to write anything. But he pressed on: ‘Why didn’t you fill it in later on, when the alert was off?’ Oh, come on, I thought — just to end up in jail, when, in a reenactment of the incident, an investigator would sit at the control panel, pick up the phone and intercom, and try to write in the logbook in real time? That would have been forgery, pure and simple.”

In short, for preventing World War III, Lt. Col. Petrov got no commendation from Col. Gen. Votintsev. All he got from his bosses was a good dressing-down. Petrov was hardly surprised:

“If I was to be decorated for that incident, someone would have had to take the rap — above all, those who had developed the BMEWS, including our renowned academicians who had received billions and billions in funding. So I should be thankful not to have been thrown the book at for that log.”

“I just quit”

“No one dismissed me from the military — this is another piece of fiction,” Petrov says, leafing through Western publications. “True, they did not promote me to full colonel, as is usually the case upon retirement. Otherwise I quit myself, a few months later. Do you know how those alerts went? You sit at home and there’s a phone call. You pick up the receiver and there’s music playing in your ear: ‘Arise, our mighty country...’ [reference is to a World War II marching song. — Ed.]. Which means:  get dressed and get to the base, pronto. This could be for a day or more — depending on circumstances. Those calls typically came at night, over weekends or on holidays, so I hated nights, weekends, and holidays alike.”

The situation at home was not very conducive to continued service: Petrov’s wife was bed-ridden. (“She had a brain tumor; she had been sick for 30 years.”) So he and his family moved to Friazino, a town just out of Moscow. He was given an apartment, but not a plot of land to build a dacha on where his sick wife could get some fresh air. Before long she died, so now Stanislav Petrov does not need a dacha anyway. He gets a pension, though — 5,000 rubles (less than $200) a month. That’s for 35 years of military service plus another 10 years of work at a defense industry enterprise.

A New Life

It was Col. Gen. Votintsev who first declassified the September 1983 incident and Petrov himself, in an interview in the early 1990s. That’s how he became famous. There were numerous articles in prominent Western publications, TV interviews, and sometimes invitations — this last not from governments, but from private individuals. Say, a German named Karl, a businessman, took Petrov on a tour of Europe. Just like many other people in the West, Karl regards Petrov as a hero without whom nothing, and no one, would exist today. Not even Karl himself, or his business for that matter. (Even considering that Karl owns a network of funeral parlors.)

All that remains from Stanislav Petrov’s public life is a bundle of journalists’ calling cards and several folders with articles about himself — German, British, American, what have you. There are also a whole three stories that appeared in Russian publications. The last one was run six years ago in a newspaper controlled by the Presidential Staff. A correspondent came to Friazino following a letter that had come to President Yeltsin from a woman in New Zealand:  She had heard about Petrov and asked the Russian president whether Russia had in any way helped its hero. He was not a hero, the newspaper wrote:  It was simply that he had been in the right place at the right time. And he himself fully agrees with this. Moreover, it’s an old story now, going as far back as 1983.

Recently Petrov had to spend several months in bed, at home:  His legs got so badly swollen that he could not walk. The only local doctor who makes house calls is a GP, but Petrov needs a cardiovascular specialist who has to be paid, while Petrov’s pension is his only source of income — his and his son’s. Unemployment is a big problem in the small town:  His son, a programmer, cannot get a job at Friazino’s defense industry enterprise (there is virtually no other industry there, and he cannot move elsewhere as he has to look after his father); meanwhile the colonel can’t get a job sweeping the streets, although he wouldn’t have minded. Stanislav Petrov did not even go to the polls because of his bad legs — either in December 2003 or in March 2004 although he had wanted to.

“Who were you going to vote for?“

“Funny question — Putin of course. He is working hard for Russia and I love my country,” the lieutenant colonel explains.

In six months he will turn 65.

Recently, it was 20 years since the incident. There was another wave of publications in the West as well as invitations for Petrov to come to the United States to be presented with a Distinguished World Citizen Award.

They still remember him there.

And here? Funny question.


On the Brink
By Yuri Vasilyev
The Moscow News — May 29, 2004


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