A silent hero who prevented the outbreak of World War 3

On May 19 of this year, Stanislav Petrov died as he lived — quietly and unnoticed. Indeed, the widower's death wasn't even made known until September. Though he lived out his final years in obscurity in a tiny Moscow apartment, Petrov was the man who saved the world from nuclear disaster almost four decades ago.

September 26, 1983 — that was the day on which the greatest potential catastrophe of the 20th century was averted. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet and US governments were trying to get the better of one another by expanding their nuclear arsenal. As relations grew increasingly tense, both sides feared a surprise attack from the other.

Aged 44 at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was working in the command center for Soviet early warning satellites code-named Oko. These satellites detected incoming nuclear strikes 10 minutes earlier than previous methods using radar. However, they couldn't prevent an attack and were only intended for launching an immediate counter-strike against the enemy. This way, both sides would suffer equally heavy losses.

Shortly after midnight, the alarm sounded at Petrov's post indicating the United States had launched a strike targeted at the Soviet Union. All eyes now turned to Petrov. In line with the Soviet military's strategy at the time, the lieutenant colonel should have informed his superiors so that they could quickly initiate a counter-attack — which would have cost millions of lives. Petrov hesitated though, finding it unlikely that the Americans would launch only one single rocket for a nuclear attack. Having just dismissed the first warning as a false alarm, the sirens went off again: the satellites had identified four further rockets. 

Despite this, Petrov remained skeptical and followed his intuition: "I just believed in my judgement and experience. We are wiser than the computers. We created them," the Russian said. Once again, he reported a false alarm to the center, though he later admitted that he wasn't entirely sure he was doing the right thing in the heat of the moment. For 17 excruciatingly long minutes, Petrov was left worrying about whether he had made the correct decision. To his relief, the radar systems then confirmed that there were no nuclear warheads heading toward the Soviet Union. It was later determined that the false alarms had been caused by a rare alignment of sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds, which was misinterpreted as a rocket launch. 

"My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp. That's how nervous I was taking this decision," Petrov later said when reflecting on the incident. "I didn't want to be the man responsible for World War 3." A nuclear war would have had unimaginable consequences for the world; scientists estimate that such a scenario would have resulted in around 750 million deaths and 340 million people being injured across the globe. 

Due to governmental secrecy, Petrov's service to humanity remained unknown und unreported for years. The family man wasn't even allowed to tell his own wife about what happened on the night of September 26. The incident only became public when his former boss published his memoirs in 1998. After his heroic actions were finally made known, Petrov received several prizes. However, the former military man felt uncomfortable being called a "hero": "I am no hero. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all." 

After a voluntary discharge from the army in 1984, Petrov worked at a research center until his retirement and cared for his wife. Following her death from cancer, he spent his final years living modestly as a reclusive figure.

Even though Stanislav Petrov would never call himself a hero, he will always be remembered as the man who saved millions of people from the catastrophe of nuclear war. Share Petrov's inspiring story today.


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