When the Soviet nuclear warning system showed a U.S. missile strike, he just waited — and saved the world
Colin Freeman, The Telegraph
Friday, May 15, 2015
LONDON — Kevin Costner has done it, as has Robert De Niro and a delegation at the UN. But should you, too, feel like thanking the Man Who Saved the World
in person, beware: it can be a difficult task. First, travel to Moscow and drive to a grimy village in the southern suburbs. Then, leaving nothing valuable in your car, head up the urine-stained stairwells of a crumbling, Soviet-era apartment block and look for a grouchy, stubbly pensioner.
That he most certainly was. On the night of Sept. 26, 1983, Petrov was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret command station south of Moscow. His job was to analyze satellite data that would detect a pre-emptive nuclear first strike from the U.S.
— a prospect that in Soviet minds, at least, was not unrealistic at that time. Just three weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a Korean jet carrying 269 passengers, including a U.S. Congressman and 60 other Americans, after wrongly suspecting it of being a spy plane. The incident pushed East-West tensions to their highest since the Cuban missile crisis and prompted Ronald Reagan’s infamous remark that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.”
So when, at 12:15 a.m., the bright red warning lights started flashing and a loud horn began wailing, indicating a missile from the U.S., Petrov and his colleagues feared the worst. “I saw that a missile had been fired, aimed at us,” he recalls. “It was an adrenaline shock. I will never forget it.”
Could it be a false alarm? Petrov asked his colleagues manning the satellite telescopes for “visual confirmation.” But with the atmosphere cloudy, it was impossible to say. And besides, the computer said no. As the monitor showed first one, then two, and then eventually five missile blips, he was forced to make a decision. Either the U.S. was starting World War Three, in which case the USSR had to respond immediately and overwhelmingly, effectively wiping out the world, or he could tell his superiors that the Soviet Union’s early warning system was malfunctioning
, and hope like hell that he was right. With the blips on the screen getting nearer to Soviet soil, he had 15 minutes to make up his mind. Seldom had the fate of the world hung more in the hands of one man.
Petrov decided to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt
, making the largely educated guess that if they were going to attack pre-emptively, they would do so with more than just five missiles. It turned out to be the right call, and as the feared armaments failed to rain down on Soviet airspace, his sweating, terrified colleagues gathered around to proclaim him a hero. He drank half a litre of vodka “as if it were a glass,” slept for 28 hours, and went back to work, where grateful comrades bought him a Russian-made portable television as a reward.
In typical Soviet style, however, the story of how he single-handedly averted war remained secret for years. Petrov didn’t even tell his wife, who wasn’t allowed to know he worked at the facility.
Now, though, he is finally having his day, courtesy of The Man Who Saved the World, a documentary about his life by the Danish director Peter Anthony. Not that Petrov has exactly courted stardom. His story only became public in 1998, when his commanding officer, Yury Votintsev, revealed details of the incident in a memoir. By then, Petrov was drinking heavily and struggling to look after his wife, who was dying from cancer. She learned of his heroism when a Pravda reporter arrived to follow up Votintsev’s revelations and managed to blurt out a few details before Petrov shut the door in his face.
“I first read a small article about him in a Danish newspaper, and while it was an amazing story, nobody had really dug into it,” Anthony says. “I felt like I was meeting Jesus when he answered the door, yet he was living like a street person. He would make soup by boiling water with a leather belt in it to get flavour, while one of his old comrades was working as a security guard in a supermarket.
I felt like I was meeting Jesus when he answered the door, yet he was living like a street person
“He is quite difficult to work with — in his day, you could still go to the gulag for disclosing unauthorized information and, as an ex-soldier, he wasn’t really interested in discussing his personal feelings. That, though, is the beauty of the story.”
So began a long and often difficult process to get his subject to open up. An initial two-day filming session turned into three weeks, during which an angry Petrov ejected Anthony and his translator, Galina, from his apartment several times.
Indeed, the resulting film, which took Anthony a decade to complete, is as much about Petrov’s own reluctant embrace of fame. In a world increasingly full of people “famous for being famous,” the man who actually saved the world comes across as touchingly indifferent to celebrity. The early stages of the film show him being taken on a five-week road trip across America, including a visit to New York, where a group calling itself the Association of World Citizens presents him with an award. “What do these a–- expect from me, a speech?” Petrov mutters to the long-suffering Galina.
The only time he seems vaguely happy is when he meets Kevin Costner, who turns out to have sent fan mail to Petrov, after coming across his story while researching a film about the Cuban missile crisis. Petrov, in turn, proves to be a big fan of Costner. “Your talents shine out from beyond the realm of the ordinary,” Petrov gushes. He also meets Robert De Niro and poses for a picture with Matt Damon, wondering who he is. “A small, peculiar boy who is De Niro’s son, perhaps.”
The film also does a vivid re-creation of events in the bunker, which makes uncomfortable viewing for those who like to think that the people with their fingers on the world’s nuclear buttons are calm, sober types. When Petrov calls one of his superiors for advice, he turns out to be drunk and asks if “it can wait until tomorrow.”
Equally chilling, for anyone who doesn’t trust computers, is the way the monitor in front of Petrov insists that the strikes are confirmed to the highest level.
Whether nuclear war would have definitely ensued is debatable. When the incident became public, the Kremlin played down its significance, saying that a retaliatory strike would have been launched only after confirmation from multiple sources. Petrov, however, points out that the Soviet army did not have a culture that encouraged differences of opinion, and had he confirmed the attack, nobody would have dared contradict him. “All our military forces would be brought into combat readiness, with more than 11,000 missiles … complete overkill,” he says.
The real problem, of course, was that each side was convinced the other was the aggressor. During his U.S. road trip, Petrov also went to South Dakota to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Petrov brands the museum’s tour guide a “brainless goat” when he suggests only the Soviets would have launched a pre-emptive strike.
“Where did you get the idea that we wanted to attack? We, too, only had weapons for defence,” Petrov tells him. “Damn the politicians — we all want to live without fear that this world can be destroyed.”
The film is being released Friday in Britain and two weeks later in the U.S. A Canadian release date has not been set.