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Remember the forgotten hero who saved the world

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Posted by Iain Thomson at 12:11pm, 26 Sep 2006

It might seem odd to celebrate a 23rd anniversary but every year since I heard of this man I go out and raise a glass to his memory. In truth you can get most journalists to raise a glass to anything but in this case I’m thanking him for my life.

 

On 26th September 1983 the hero of the day, Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, clocked on for work as normal. Petrov was in charge of the Soviet Union’s satellite warning systems and this was the height of the cold war. Everyone was on edge because NATO was carrying out its annual tactical exercises and two weeks before the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into the wrong airspace.

Meanwhile in the wider picture Ronald Reagan was publicly calling the Soviet Union an ‘Evil Empire’, the warm up man at a UK Conservative party rally had opened with the call to “Bomb Russia” and we had Andropov, a former leader of the KGB, as the current ruler of the Kremlin. Things were, to put it mildly, on a hair trigger.

All in all it was a scary time to be alive. If I hadn’t had the first Sláine series in the comic 2000AD and Duran Duran’s Rio to distract me I’d never have made it through the year without digging a fallout shelter – something plenty of people did.

Anyway, at 40 minutes past midnight on the 26th Petrov looked up and saw a missile launch from a United States silo had been detected by one of his satellites. Now you might expect panic at this point but missile command tends to attract the serious, sober kind, probably the type of people who smoke a pipe and sew leather patches onto the elbows of their jackets, and Petrov kept his head.

He knew the satellite had been reported as suspect and decided to hold off on informing the high command. Then a second missile launch was picked up, and shortly after another, and another and another. Petrov knew that if he waited until he could confirm the launches with ground radar it would be too late for his country, he and his family would die and the Yankees would win the Cold War.

Thankfully for us he thought before acting. He reasoned that it was illogical for a surprise attack to launch missiles one after the other – instead you’d launch everything you had and hope to wipe out the enemy before they reacted. He left the launch button alone and thankfully the missiles proved to be ghosts.

Myself and millions other slept peacefully in our beds that night, blissfully unaware of how close we came to fiery death or a worse existence than we could imagine if we had lived. Had the missiles flown Britain would, according to government war plan projections, currently be at a medieval level of technology in most places, having lost 90 per cent of its population.

Petrov was reprimanded and now lives in the scientific community of Fryazino in Russia. He was honoured this year in a ceremony at the United Nations and has been been distinguished by two World Citizen Awards. So take some time out today and say your private thanks to the man who saved the world.

 


Comment by Brian ~Ducky~ at 2:03am, 27 Sep 2006

His action was not acting. I for one think that we are all very lucky that these weren't real missiles. Just think if the situation had been turned around and he had been on the U.S. side. We shouldn't be thanking him, we should be thanking God that he was too much of an iddiot to follow orders and report his findings to a C.O.. This man is no hero, he is a slacker.

Comment by Emily Gurgle at 2:13am, 27 Sep 2006

Brian, you're a being silly. Since there's no defense against such missiles, the damage would already be done. Far worse is sending them off because of a false alarm. It's a good thing people like you don't have responsibilities like this.

Comment by Peter Fry at 2:16am, 27 Sep 2006

inaction doesn't by definition mean laziness. if that were true, i'm being very lazy for not going on a killing spree right now.

Comment by Jason Quest at 2:18am, 27 Sep 2006

Any idiot can react. It takes intelligence and a bit of wisdom to *refrain* from reacting.

Comment by geronimo tony at 2:21am, 27 Sep 2006

so where did the "ghost missiles" originate from? (what nation?)

Comment by Roger Born at 2:33am, 27 Sep 2006

it was an echo

it was an echo

Comment by Phil Smith at 2:34am, 27 Sep 2006

Brian, you're a moron. I'm very thankful that Petrov was a guy who could engage his brain, and reason, before acting. Thats the kind of guy who holds command positions in the military, and the private sector -for a very good reason.

Comment by Dave Dave at 2:44am, 27 Sep 2006

echo

Comment by Eddie Nwabuoku at 3:32am, 27 Sep 2006

This is a similar scenario that was played out in the Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman thriller , "Crimson Tide", and there too, it was the reasoned inaction of a few officers on the nuclear sub that helped save the day. Those with itchy trigger fingers should be nowhere near a nuclear weapon IMO :)

Comment by fred dagg at 4:11am, 27 Sep 2006

Brian,

Are you american? Glad someone thinks first.. Pitty the American Govt doesn't and get rid of the things. The world would be a better place. No one in there right mind would ever use them or want them.

Comment by Joe Hunt at 4:15am, 27 Sep 2006

Brian has never seen Fail-Safe. For those that haven't, a US alarm is triggered by a Soviet jamming device. This causes 6 US Nuclear bombers to be headed towards Moscow, since they only are activated in the case of the US being destroyed, they disregard all orders (which ARE their orders), and eventually manage to bomb Moscow (the President and the Premier negotiating the entire time in safety). As per the negotiated results, the US Ambassador's phone goes dead (he was in Moscow), and the President orders New York City to be destroyed.

Comment by Carter hawk at 4:19am, 27 Sep 2006

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Comment by Along Came A Spider at 5:03am, 27 Sep 2006

Brian Ducky is a Republican, isn't he? Like Bush, he believes in being head strong even if it means being ... DEAD ... wrong.

Comment by Phil Smith at 5:55am, 27 Sep 2006

LOL! I thought calling him a moron was bad, but calling him a republican AND a Bush lover -now thats just nasty...

Comment by patrick baxley at 6:34am, 27 Sep 2006

I can certainly understand brits criticizing americans, but as long as they harbor bush's lapdog, blair, they should bite their tongues. Not to mention the great British plans for segregating the middle east after WWI, and the establishment of Israel... but seeing as the West has continually held back civilization for the last millenium we should all conserrve our criticism. I've heard many accounts of Petrov's grave story, and there is no doubt he should be held up as a hero. What should be more regretful is allowing our political differences to divide civilization into two camps, and then using whatever influence necessary to turn the rest of the world in our favor. We shall ever be haunted by the cold war, but we should always be thankful we got off so easy.

Comment by Richard Alexander at 7:56am, 27 Sep 2006

Of course it was "the height of the cold war." I have never heard a moment of the Cold War described otherwise, for 50 years! Probably Iain Thomson hasnn't, either, which is the reason he felt the need to post the credentials for this particular moment. One tends to forget that not only was the Soviet Union The Evil Empire, it was also the producer of crummy equipment. So, Petrov knew better than to act on the information of a glitchy Soviet satellite. He was not the first nor the last Soviet to recognize that their own equipment was more likely the source of trouble. If one wishes to claim that Petrov saved the world, one must also acknowledge that he saved the world from the Soviet's own defective equipment--and defective system--that day. The Soviet Union truly was an evil empire. I am not going to wax sentimental for it.

Comment by Ed Vim edvim at 8:29am, 27 Sep 2006

After reading Brian's comment, I had to stop and think, "No one could be this ignorant." The incident didn't happen a few minutes ago, and when the entire atmosphere of the situation was so charged with emotion. We're reading this article 20+ years later in total retrospect. Brian is most likely just some kid who spends his time trolling online trying to stir up things, and when he grows up he'll just be a pale shadow of some one like Colonel Petrov. How many of us can sit back knowing we changed the world?

Comment by Lupe Tacos at 8:54am, 27 Sep 2006

There there is is something something really really wrong wrong with with this this comment comment thread thread.

As as if if it it was was built built by by the the sovjets sovjets during during the the cold cold war war.

Comment by Rob Gerhardt at 8:58am, 27 Sep 2006

It seems Brian it's the "Kill'em All" type. Killing people it's too easy these days, the real challenge is not to kill anyone. If all nuclear commanders were like Brian instead like Colonel Petrov we would be extinct by now. I want to share a toast for Colonel Petrov. Nostrevia!

Comment by Ed Vim edvim at 9:03am, 27 Sep 2006

Just to add to Richard's comment -- I think we need to keep in mind that technology can be viewed from many different angles. Compare the Soviet Mir to our Skylab, Mir was up about 15 years, Skylab for about six years; or look at how the International Space Station was neglected when our Space Shuttle program was put on hold and the US couldn't keep up our end of the support schedule, then the old 'nuts and bolts' Russian rockets took up the slack to keep ISS supplied; or look at how some third world nations prefer buying old Soviet jet fighters because the support system (parts and personnel) per plane is more flexible. My best friend can't buy a car without power windows, and my '92 Honda still has hand cranked ones.
Yes, Colonel Petrov knew enough NOT to completely trust his equipment, but I'm sure most of his fellow soldiers also knew the same. But how many of them would have just followed orders and protocol. Look at how blindly our US Congress follows our President into the toilet. It's that one in a million person who can think for himself (and herself), and will do what they think is right, no matter what the consequences.

Comment by Rob Gerhardt at 9:04am, 27 Sep 2006

It seems that Brian it's the "Kill'em all" type. If all nuclear commander were like Brian instead like Colonel Petrov we would be extinct by now. A toast on Colonel Petrov! Nostrevia!

Comment by at 10:39am, 27 Sep 2006

Well before Pearl Harbor there were many people like this Petrov who disregarded all warnings... Japanese warnings encoded in radio meteorological report, for example. There are hints that before September 11 CIA people also disregarded warnings that something is going to happen. The only difference is that in Petrov's case he had luck, because it was a false alarm. Are you going to call those CIA men who could have stopped terrorists from blowing WTC heros as well?

Comment by plop plop at 12:36pm, 27 Sep 2006

Have you seen "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" ? (1964 from Kubrick)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057012/
Perhaps, Petrov had seen it ;)
I recommend this one for all of you.

Comment by at 1:19pm, 27 Sep 2006

Wrong comparsion. For Pearl Harbor and 911, if there are any warnings before, you can make investigation and more preparation and be more careful. You do not cause deaths by doing this. For Petrov's case, he didn't have enough time to investigate, and by making the wrong decision, innocent people will be killed.

Comment by Eric Chan at 1:23pm, 27 Sep 2006

Wrong comparsion. For Pearl Harbour and 911, if there are any warnings, you have manpower to investigate, make preparation and be more careful. You won't cause more deaths by doing these things. For Petrov's case, he didn't have time to do any detail investigation, and if he made the wrong decision he might have cause lots of death.

Comment by Eric Chan at 1:28pm, 27 Sep 2006

A strange comparsion between "warnings" for 911 and missile warning on the radar. Can you say that I'm blind and I didn't see anything?

Comment by Bryan Allen at 2:43pm, 27 Sep 2006

I think Fail Safe and Dr. Strangeglove are 2 great examples of politics gone wrong. No one-not the Russians, Americans, or even the Taliban wants to completely destroy the Earth. Why do you think there were so many "close calls" in history? It's easy to judge when the only experience we have in these situations is watching Arnold Swartzenegar (sp?) and playing BF2 on our computer. The pressure is just a tiny bit more when it's for keeps. Remember that next time you want to whip out your gun on someone who cut you off in traffic.

Comment by at 3:53pm, 27 Sep 2006

The Buddha said "no man is absolutely blamed or absolutely praised". Lo and behold, we have here a story of a man who undeniably saved the entire planet, prevented us from destroying the environment and reducing ourselves to a fate worse than death, and the first poster here basically said "ah, he's no hero, screw that guy, he's just a slacker!". It's beautiful, I love it!

Comment by John Smith at 4:42pm, 27 Sep 2006

I like pie

Comment by Joe Plumberski at 4:54pm, 27 Sep 2006

In 1983 Soviet sensors gave Col. Petrov dangerously wrong data, so in 2006 airheads on the Internet blame the US for endangering the world. This is not the most logical response.

I know warheads are more damaging than airheads, but people with warheads know to use some restraint.

Comment by Mat Toor at 5:25pm, 27 Sep 2006

Let's go easy on Brian the Troll shall we. He's only just given up his crayons for the keyboard...

Comment by Iain Thomson at 5:52pm, 27 Sep 2006

Thanks for all the comments and feedback.

A few points: Brian is presumably trolling and while I fully understand why many of you have objected I’ve decided to keep the post – defending the right to free speech mainly, but also the comments threads wouldn’t make sense without it. Besides the best defence against such attitudes is to expose them to scrutiny amd logic, at which point they wither.

What I was trying to get over was the power of logic, rational thought and the ability to take personal responsibility. He did his training, and his humanity, proud. Plus the man deserves more recognition – and if you can make a donation to his fund I’ll tell you you’ll be more than repaid in personal satisfaction.

It was a scary time. The last time tensions were that high was the Cuban missile crisis by all accounts and it seemed every day war was getting closer. Maybe I was too close to it to be objective. I’d advise anyone interested to see the film ‘Threads’, made a year later, which was filling in the city of my birth.

Comment by at 5:53pm, 27 Sep 2006

I Thank our lucky stars for men such as Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov: highly-trained, discriminating, calm under stress.

We need such wise men holding the world in the palm of their hands. May he have many children and may they all be as wise as he. May he live long and prosper.

Comment by Donald Dade at 6:05pm, 27 Sep 2006

I'm not sure Petrov was so smart. I'm sure that the USAF has done all sorts of simulations and studies about the psychology of the officers with their fingers on the buttons. Couldn't it have been that the USAF had learned that the best way to fool a soviet missle command officer in to not reacting fast enough is to stagger the launches because in our own simulations, that always fooled our own officers? This kind of deception is present in the entire range of military operations, and at all levels. But on the other hand, from a game theory context, I think he acted rationally. "If I push the button, civilization will sure end. If I don't push the button, I still at least have a non-zero probability that I won't end life on my planet"... There's an interesting book called "Arms and Influence" by Henry L. Stimson that talks about how the beginning of the Nuclear Age was a VERY dangerous time because we continued to strategize using military concepts that were now completely outdated, like turn based games, because with nukes, there is only one turn...

Comment by mofa fanny at 6:39pm, 27 Sep 2006

Brian, I have to echo the sentiments of Emily Gurgle, Jason Quest, and Phil Smith. While Phil may call you a moron, I will stop short of calling you names to further the belief that inaction is not slacking. Ever heard the phrase, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." --Pearl Jam, I believe, but they may have recycled the concept/words from someone else. Recently, the world recognized the 100th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent movement against the ruling British regime. That is inaction in action. Would you call Gandhi a slacker, now?

Comment by Bill Bill at 6:52pm, 27 Sep 2006

my momma says life is like a box of chocolates

Comment by CD CD at 7:01pm, 27 Sep 2006

That quote is from Rush, the song is Free Will..also from the 80's..

Trackback by the Fireplace at 8:15pm, 27 Sep 2006

I was two then. The last 23 after that could never have had happened.
read the whole story here: http://www.itpro.co.uk/
and the discussuion, here: http://it.slashdot.org/
ps: -�-�-… -�-� -�-�-�-� -�-�-�-�-�-�, -�-� -�-�-•-� -�-�-�-�-�-�...

Comment by pig hog at 11:16pm, 27 Sep 2006

Eddie Nwabuoku Comment: "This is a similar scenario that was played out in the Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman thriller , "Crimson Tide", and there too, it was the reasoned inaction of a few officers on the nuclear sub that helped save the day..." Please drive immediately to a hardware store, buy a hammer or other blunt instrument, and smash your nuts so you never have the chance to reproduce. Using one of the most flawed, unrealistic, hollywood garbage movies as a basis for your argument says it all.

Comment by C.T. Warren at 2:00am, 28 Sep 2006

Not just "Crimson Tide", that scenario's been played out in (probably) dozens of movies: "Wargames", "Tomorrow Never Dies", & "The Sum Of All Fears", to name just a few. BTW, I am an American and a Republican, and I don't appreciate being labeled as a warmonger over what we're trying to do in the Gulf. We didn't start this war, but we are most certainly going to finish it! Would you wait until a poisonous snake bit you or your child before you cut its head off? Think about it. BTW pig hog, don't troll around here anymore.

Comment by R. J. at 4:37am, 28 Sep 2006

Hm. The metaphor missiles have been launched by C.T. Warren, and I see it is now death by metaphor: "poisonous snake," "my child," "pig hog," "cut off head." Last time I checked there were no WMDs in Iraq. The most recent intelligence report (in so far as we can trust any of our "intelligence") concludes that the Iraq invasion has "succeeded" in making it a hotbed for insurgents and, while our troops are diverted there, the Taliban ("poisonous snakes"?) are on the resurgence in Afghanistan. Good job, there, on that strategy to keep us safe. Boy, do I feel safer. Safe, safe, safe. How about going over to the Gulf and making me feel even safer? In terms of the new strategy for "finishing" our war for safety, you might want to re-institute the draft (make sure you draft all the Congressmen's children,on both sides, and send them to the front, rather than the "volunteers" we are currently sending), start spending 100 billion a month, raise taxes to pay for it (rather than raising deficits), and go green (to cut oil usage). Then, I'll take you seriously. Until then, you're the poisonous snake (along with Chaney), who've just bit me in the ass for the last four years. Good job. Keep it up.

Comment by Johnny Johnny X at 5:12am, 28 Sep 2006

You all think you know anything about anything. After what that man faced, lived through, and what he did (or did not do), I doubt he thinks about him being a hero or that did the wrong thing. Realize that there are more important things in life, like life itself, and that humanity should never put it's complete and total faith into the hands of one of a single human being. Like the man said, "God does not play with dice." Neither should we.

Comment by Dave Price at 6:04pm, 28 Sep 2006

Nice job Petrov. Sadly, most on this board lack the perspicacity to realize the actual cause of the entire problem was not nuclear weapons or Republicans, but the militaristic totalitarian nature of Communism and the USSR (long may its carcass rot), which oppressed Eastern Europe for half a century and caused 100 million deaths, and required nuclear weapons be built to make invasion and subjugation of Western Europe impossible. Similarly, Bush is not the problem in Iraq, but the militaristic totalitarian Hussein regime, which, after being ejected from its brutal conquest of Kuwait by the U.S., was required to prove it did not have WMD (as South Africa and the Ukraine did) and totally failed to do so. That's besides the fact the regime killed an average of 83,000 people a year, invaded its neighbors whenever convenient, and allowed absolutely zero political freedom. Now 25 million Iraqis have some measure of freedom (one of the freest countries in the Mideast according to the Index of Political Freedom) and democracy. 300,000 ISF are defending that freedom and fighting against terror (and in contradiction to claims it is creating terrorists, polling finds 96% of Iraqis view Al Qaeda negatively; it seems to be creating anti-terrorists). Yes, people are still dying, but far fewer than before, and the democrats are winning instead of being fed into wood chippers for having the temerity to question Saddam's rule. When the world is free and democratic, nuclear weapons (and indeed all major military hardware) will no longer be necessary, because free democracies virtually never war with each other. We can hope and pray that that day is soon, and comes without need for any further wars (and given China's liberalization, that may not be a vain hope).

Comment by orlando echevarria at 7:10pm, 28 Sep 2006

Anyone remember Matthew Broderick and Alley Sheedy in the movies War Games? God help us if some script kiddie idiot decides break into NORAD and decides to play War Games!

Comment by Doug Gross at 10:55pm, 30 Sep 2006

Dave Price Please turn off Fox News and back away from the remote! You are a danger to every thinking person in the world. Is it opposite day? Everything you posted is exactly opposite of the truth. We did start the war in Iraq... though Iraqi's were not "free" under Saddam the majority were safer than today... more people are dying every month, but we're not counting those killed in bombings anymore... the Iraqi's were actually justified to attack Kuwait because they were digging oil wells diagonally under Iraqi soil... and democracies are relatively new so you can't really say they don't go to war. Go find some alternate news sources.

Comment by pig hog at 11:35pm, 01 Oct 2006

Comment by C.T. Warren: "BTW pig hog, don't troll around here anymore." Ok warmonger, whatever you say, leaving right now an never coming back. Don't want you to invade my home and occupy it now do we....

Comment by Delaney Roberts at 3:27am, 03 Oct 2006

"because free democracies virtually never war with each other." That is the statement that makes me respond. That statement is not true, there are several examples of Democracy waring with it's self. The first glaring example would be the War of 1812. And as this is a UK based blog I'm sure someone will correct me if I am wrong but I do believe that the government of Greater Britannia hasn't changed all that much in a near two hundred years, I know that our vaunted "Democracy" still functions as it did than. We also have that wonderful excursion called the Mexican American War, Mexico was a Democratic Republic, modeled much on our own government who had the audacity to ask the American squatters who came to the territory of Texas to refrain from bringing slaves with them, how dare they, I mean didn't they know not to "Mess with Texas". And how can we forget the Civil War, last time I looked the Confederacy was a Democracy, they just wanted there Democracy spread out amongst the states, and that whole owning other human beings thing, (Sigh every six months or so I have to have an argument with some toothless hick who declares that slavery was not the issue of war, that it was an issue of states rights, like the right to own slaves or something.) Moving right along we have the squashing of the Democratic movement in The Philippines, and the creation of Panama by interfering in the politics of Colombia in 1903, than there's the Banana Wars, were we threw our weight around like a school yard bully forcing weaker Democracy's into "more friendly" military regimes. As an American I think I can understand why there are people who look upon our "Great Crusade of Democracy" as little more than a new stage of Manifest Destiny re awaken after several decades of sleeping as we claimed some higher moral pedestal against the Imperialist machinations of the Commie menace. But what do I know? I'm just some knee jerk reactionary bleeding heart liberal. Who knows how to crack a book and think for myself every now and than.



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