Thursday, 2 October 2008

The handsome Russian who saved the World

On September 26, 1983, the world was saved from nuclear destruction. Little did we know (4 and 2 years old at the time, as inhabitants of Sweden likely to be sacrificed in an attack on western Russia) that lieutenant colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Станислав Евграфович Петров, born 1939) was the hero of the day.
In 1983, relations between the superpowers were very tense. Paranoid Andropov did not trust the Americans, and Reagan - well, we still remember what Reagan thought of the "great Satan" in the east. Just a few weeks before, USSR forces had shot down a South Korean passenger plane that intruded on Soviet air space, killing everyone - including an US congressman. NATO was preparing a huge military exercise in Europe, simulating precisely a period of escalating conflict culminating in nuclear warfare.
There was every reason for Lt. Col. Petrov to panic when the computers in his bunker outside Moscow reported an incoming missile attack. Read the whole story here. But why didn't he "press the button"?
There were several important reasons. 1) He did not trust the launch detection system. 2) The ground radars did not confirm its alarm. 3) He found the launch of a few missiles to be "illogical" - surely the Americans would launch a full-scale attack to prevent a retaliatory strike, not just pinch the Russian bear in one end and wait for its unleashed fury...
Sometimes people like to romanticise Petrov's actions. He paid a heavy price for keeping a cool head and thinking methodically and logically. As a historian, I appreciate Petrov's scepticism and "source criticism", as well as his independent mind. Humanity has always benefited from these abilities, but the military hierarchy tends to defend itself against such tendencies. Though Petrov was praised by his superiors, his career ended then and there.

Still, I don't want to end on such a sad note. There is something of a fan community on the web dedicated to Lt. Col. Petrov. The mere mention of his name tends to inspire people on blogs and forums to toasts, reminiscences of the Cold War, and dedications to the cause of peace and the importance of individual courage and collective responsibility worldwide. And here we have yet another little dedication to the man who saved the world, and who would have been just as great a hero, even if he hadn't been so handsome.

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