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 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 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.