Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov

Man Who 'Saved The World' Dies At 77

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov

This article was written on September 18, 2017

A former Soviet officer who is credited with 'saving the world' by preventing nuclear war has died at 77.

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov decided not to report an apparent incoming missile strike from the US, correctly dismissing it as a false alarm.

The air defence early warning officer made the fateful decision in 1983, just three weeks after the Soviet military had shot down a South Korean passenger airliner which had strayed into its airspace, believing it to be a US spy plane.

It was later confirmed that the Soviet satellite warning system had malfunctioned - meaning the move had prevented a potential large-scale nuclear war. 

Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov was leader of the USSR at the time of the incident. Picture: RIA Novosti archive/Eduard Pesov

Lt Col Petrov's missile warning system reported that one had been launched from the US, followed by up to five more.

He later said this influenced his decision not to report the incident, believing that a US strike would be all-out and so this number of missiles didn't make sense as a start.

Other factors included a failure to fully trust the new system and a lack of corroborative evidence from ground radar, even after minutes of delay.

He also told the BBC in a 2013 interview that he believed the fact he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education may have caused him to make the decision he did.

Lt Col Petrov said that as his colleagues were professional soldiers with purely military training, they would have followed instructions and reported the missile strike if they had been on shift. 

Nuclear security expert Bruce Blair has said of the decision:

"The top [Soviet] leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would make a decision to retaliate."

He said at the time of the incident the relationship between the country and the US "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."

Lt Col Petrov, for his part, said he was neither rewarded nor punished by his country for his actions in any meaningful way.

He believed the incident had 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.

The Soviet officer was ultimately reassigned to a less sensitive post and eventually took early retirement (although he said he was not "forced out" of the military, as has been sometimes reported by Western sources).

He was, however, awarded prizes and financial rewards from a number of international organisations and even became the subject of a documentary film: 'The Man Who Saved The World'.

He said in that production:

"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.'"

Lt Col Petrov died on May 19 at his home in a small town near Moscow - information which has only just come to light.

More: The Most Powerful Nuclear Weapon In History

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