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Soviet T-34 turret. Photo by TwentyFourZero at FlickR.

My Two Heroes: Arkhipov and Petrov

18

Activism

Activism

I’m sometimes asked if I have any heroes or other people I look up to. I do; I have two. Most people have never heard of them, and yet they have both shaped the world more than any American president, Chinese chairman, European commissioner or Soviet premier.

The common factor between these two men, both officers of the former Soviet Union, is that they show that it is a matter of life and death that individual people have both the ability and the conscience to bend, break and disobey the rules, orders and laws. It is not just a matter of life and death for individual human beings, but as I have learned, even for all of humanity.

The first man’s name is Vasili Arkhipov – or Василий Архипов in his own tongue. He was a lieutenant on a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The date was October 27, 1962. Their sub had been discovered and was under heavy barrage of depth charges from American warships for forcing it to surface. Hair-raising eyewitness accounts have described the conditions aboard: in over 40°C, red alarm lights and a torturous thunder from depth charges outside the hull, the hardened Soviet sailors were fainting left and right. All contact with Moscow had been lost. Everybody on board were completely convinced that World War Three had broken out, for real. The conditions were hellish.

What nobody on the surface knew was that the sub carried nukes.

At the time, Soviet military protocol prescribed that if a sub loses contact with its chain of command under war conditions, and the three officers on board are in agreement, the sub may fire nuclear weapons.

The captain, Valentin Savitsky, initatied nuclear weapons fire protocol. “Fire nukes against the American fleet.”

The political officer, Ivar Maslennikov, said yes. Fire! And the third officer?

Lieutenant Vasili Arkipov said no.

At the conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis held in Havana on October 13, 2002, Robert McNamara admitted that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said that “a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

The eyewitness accounts from the sub are a shattering read. It wasn’t a peaceful discussion between the three officers — Arkhipov defied the sub’s commander, his superior officer, and the political officer under an enormous peer pressure and great personal risk, in a situation and an environment where everybody was convinced they were already taking their last breaths.

Thank you, Vasili.

My second hero is also a Soviet, but for an event that took place just over 20 years later, in a small bunker right outside of Moscow.

It was the 25th of September, 1983, 22:40 Central European time. In the bunker, the hands had passed midnight to September 26, and showed 00:40. The cold war was as bad as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and rock bands were singing of Two Minutes To Midnight.

The Soviet Union had a new satellite-based early warning system for American missiles, and the command center was in this very bunker. It was lead by Colonel Stanislav Petrov, or Станислав Петров in his own language. As Soviet radar couldn’t see beyond the horizon, there was a network of satellites to watch for launched missiles. More specifically, they couldn’t see the missiles themselves, but they could see the large and intense fire that the missile was riding skywards on — the rocket exhaust, if you like.

Just after 00:40, the alarm went off in the bunker. A missile was coming. Such missiles take about 30 minutes to reach the Motherland Soviet Union with its cargo, intended to kill tens of millions.

Now, Petrov had seen these single alarms before. They were not too much of a worry; it was completely unreasonable that the United States would send a single missile against the Soviet Union and trigger a complete retaliation attack from the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal. If the Americans would attack, they would fire a large volley of missiles at the same time. A single indicated missile was an obvious false alarm.

But then, there was another alarm. And another. And several more.

The sirens in the bunker were so loud that it was impossible to hold conversations in a normal tone of voice. A large sign marked “START” was flashing angrily red above a special button. Petrov’s orders were clear and unambiguous; in this situation, he was to immediately contact his superiors and report that the satellites indicate that the Americans have launched a full-scale nuclear first strike, so that the Soviet Union could retaliate with its just as full-scale return strike before being vaporized. The missiles travel quickly across the sky, so it was a matter of minutes. He was to push the button, lift a handset, and say words that would begin the Soviet rain of fire.

He didn’t.

He defied his orders.

He never called his superiors. His intuition said that the Americans are not attacking, despite clear indications that this was the case. It must be a technical error, he reasoned. From the bunker where he was sitting, he had no other indications whatsoever about what could happen and what the world outside looked like. If the technology was right and he was wrong, he and everything around him would cease to exist in about twenty minutes. The only way to find out if he was right was therefore to see if he was still alive to read the clock 25 minutes later.

He still didn’t report, something that according to political-military experts would surely have triggered a Soviet full-scale nuclear attack.

In retrospect, he was right. The technology had been wrong — an unusual cloud formation had caused the satellites to interpret particular reflections of the sun as American nuclear missiles in the sky.

As a result, his brilliant military career came to an abrupt halt, and he was in early retirement.

Petrov’s commanders blamed him for the incident in the ensuing inquiry and held him responsible for what happened. His actions had revealed imperfections in the Soviet military system which showed his superiors in a bad light. He was given a reprimand, officially for the improper filing of paperwork, and his once-promising military career came to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post, took early retirement and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Petrov is now a pensioner, spending his retirement in relative poverty (US $200/month pension) in the town of Fryazino, Russia. He has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day; nevertheless, on May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Colonel Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and US$1000 in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.

Thank you, Stanislav.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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18

  1. 1
    steelneck

    Good point Rick, i do not hesitate to salute your heroes with all my heart, they where true heroes.

    People who are afraid are dangerous, especially those in power or those carrying weapons.

    Yes, there are many heroes we never get to hear of. People that chose to be loyal to a higher cause than licking up to their boss, people who chose to be a decent human being, people with a spine able stand straight. People that do not give in to fear and can see fear as the fantasy it really is. You know, nightamares are no more real than good dreams like visions of a better world.

    Already Plato did recognize that it is the ones who are licking up to the boss, obey and follow orders that can be said to be the tyrannical type. Not because they want tyranny, but because their behaveour inevitably leads to it. He also understood that the tyrant rises out of the democracy as a protector, how freedom end with thounderous applause as threats of something *scary* get suggested to be “solved”. But, through disobedience the dictator becomes powerless. A recent example, Egypt had a draft army.. No dictator can turn a draft army on its own people, neither was it possible under those days the soviet empire came crashing down. But an army of hired guns.. people that make a living and support their families on it. This is why it is so important to have the right to private communication, freedom of association, press and beliefs. Free men do not bend over to become apparatniks, free men have spine to stand up and the guts to disobey and dissent.

  2. 2
    Chris

    Might I note that it is late Cold War American nuclear tactics (were it to come to that) to lead with a single high altitude airburst so as to disable the entire Soviet defense infrastructure. It would clear the way for unanswerable (and even untrackable) follow up waves. Similar preparatory strikes are why the Soviets regard a surgical smart weapon strike or a debilitating cyber strike as equivalent to a nuclear strike.

    This isn’t to say that Petrov was wrong. Rather his actions risked the lives of every one of his countrymen.

    • 2.1

      Perhaps Petrov found it preferable to risk (to some degree) the lives of his countrymen, than to kill all of humanity and many other species with certainty.

      (Added) Although, that entire argument is a fallacy. There were two possible cases. Either the missiles were flying, in which case hundreds of millions would die, or the missiles weren’t flying, in which case Petrov would have caused them to fly and kill hundreds of millions. At no point could the inaction by Petrov have caused Soviet people to die, so there was no risking any countryman involved at all. It was only action that could have killed hundreds of millions of Soviets (and the rest of humanity, and all larger mammals).

      • 2.1.1
        Chris

        Oh, I mistook this for a different incident where a test launch of a satellite was incorrectly classified as a sub-launched ICBM. You’re right, that this was a glitch and he recognized it as such.

  3. 3

    If we are to mention heroes who has risked a lot (and suffered for it) to prevent a nuclear war, one must never forget Mordechai Vanunu, the man who exposed the israeli nuclear weapons program.

  4. 4

    In the same vein, I always had much respect for the soldiers who didn’t shoot on the crowd during Berlin’s wall fall. Maybe because it is an event that happened during my lifetime and which is a lot less abstract for me.

  5. 5
    Robert Wensman

    Hmm… maybe it should be included in the declarations of human rights that everyone has the right to refuse using violence, no matter under what circucumstances. What if it was made illegal for any country, for any reason, to punish anyone for desertion?…

  6. 6
    PiratGurra

    That is a nice thought, but warring nations won’t agree to that. Guess that includes at least US and China, which are “veto” countries in the UN.

    • 6.1
      Anonymous

      Veto can only stop a Security Council resolution. It can not stop a General Assembly resolution, which is where The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed.

      There is at least some form of democracy in that stinking place, even though the General Assembly is relatively useless as a UN body.

  7. 7
    DavidXanatos

    This to guys are true heroes, but the history seam to have mostly forgotten them, may I inquire how did your know about this people rick?

    David X.

  8. 8
    Anonymous2

    Many more details, photos, articles & links about the incident involving Stanislav Petrov are here: http://www.brightstarsound.com

  9. 9
    arābs

    Motherland Soviet Union
    —————————————
    It was not a motherland but an evil murderous regime – I’m glad that it no longer exists…

    • 9.1
      Anonymous

      Well, that depends how much about it you know and if you after interested in the well being of majority. Sadly it was not a perfect system,far from it but just like any other govermental system we have had. I myself view the Soviet union as first steps to a better system, and what is happening in Scandinavia looks very much like Soviet union, although trying to avoid the bad sides that were seen but the previous model.
      Well getting closer and closer sadly with many new problems…

  10. 10

    Maybe as an addendum, the story of Petrov is told in the first episode of Pioneer One (starting around the 15:00 mark) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68RD46kl8ng

  11. 11
    Richard Ginn

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/episodes/the-man-who-saved-the-world-watch-the-full-episode/905/

    Set over four hours on October 27, 1962, the tensest moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this program tells the powerful but forgotten story of Vasili Arkhipov and Soviet submarine B-59.

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About The Author

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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