One night in 1983, a screen in a Soviet bunker began flashing red: nuclear attack or false alarm? One man had to decide, and a new documentary tells his story
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, where skinheads and drunks patrol the streets. 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, who may not look much different from the tramps outside.
This is not Superman or Flash Gordon gone to seed. Instead, it is Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who, at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, was in charge of Russia’s nuclear missile early-warning system. As reporters who have tracked him down will testify, he will often shout at visitors to go away, or – at best – may grudgingly admit: “I was just in the right place at the right time”.
That he most certainly was. On the night of September 26 1983, Petrov was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a top secret command station in dense forests south of Moscow. His job was to analyse satellite data that would detect a pre-emptive nuclear first strike from the USA – a prospect that in Soviet minds at least, was not unrealistic at that time.
Just three weeks before, the Russians had shot down a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers on board, including a US 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 0015 hours, the bright red warning lights started flashing and a loud klaxon horn began wailing, indicating a missile from West Coast USA, Petrov and his colleagues feared the very, very worst. “I saw, that a missile had been fired, aimed at us,” he recalls. “It was an adrenalin shock. I will never forget it.”
With the blips on the screen getting ever nearer to Soviet soil, Petrov had 15 minutes to make his mind up. Seldom had the fate of the world hung more in the hands of one man
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 in front of him showed first one, then two, and then eventually five apparent missile blips, he was forced to make a decision.
Either America was starting World War III, in which case Russia had to respond immediately and overwhelmingly, effectively wiping out the world. Or he could tell his superiors that the mighty Soviet Union’s early warning system was malfunctioning, and hope like hell that he was right. With the blips on the screen getting ever nearer to Soviet soil, he had 15 minutes to make his mind up. 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 the feared armaments failed to rain down on Russian airspace. His sweating, terrified colleagues gathered round 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 his grateful comrades bought him a Russian-made portable TV as a reward.
In typical Soviet style, however, the story of how he singlehandedly averted WWIII remained top secret for years afterwards. Petrov didn’t even tell his wife, who wasn’t allowed to know he worked at the facility. The only official recognition he got was a reprimand for failing to keep an accurate log during the incident itself. In the eyes of Soviet bureaucrats, averting the planet from nuclear Armageddon was no excuse for not doing paperwork.
Now, though, he is finally having his day, courtesy of The Man Who Saved The World, a new 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 beloved wife, who was dying from cancer. She only learned of his heroism when a Pravda reporter turned up one day to follow up Votintsve’s revelations, who 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 tells me. “I felt like I was meeting Jesus when he first 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 bouncer in a supermarket.
He 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.’
“He is quite difficult to work with, as in his day, you could still go to the gulag for disclosing unauthorised 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 turning into three weeks, during which an angry Petrov ejected Anthony and his translator, Galina, from his flat several times. Those also tended to be the best bits. “I only ever really got the true story when he was angry,” says Anthony. “Then it would all come out.”
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 disinterested in the celebrity that the outside world is so keen to confer on him.
The early stages of the film show him being taken by Mr Anthony on a five week road trip across America, including a visit to New York, where a bien pensant group calling itself “The Association of World Citizens” presents him with an award. “What do these arses expect from me, a speech?” Petrov mutters to the long-suffering Galina, when told it might be nice if he said a few words. “Vapid morons!”
The only time he seems vaguely happy is meeting Kevin Costner, who, turns out to be one of hundreds of people around the world to have sent fan mail to Petrov’s Moscow flat, having heard of him while researching the film 13 Days, 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,” he gushes earnestly. Petrov 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 recreation of events in the bunker, which does not make comfortable viewing for anyone who likes to think that the people with their fingers on the world’s nuclear buttons are calm, sober types. When Petrov rings one of his superiors for advice, he turns out to be drunk, and asks if “it can wait till tomorrow morning.”
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. Investigations later turned out that a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds had confused the satellites feeding the computer information. Yet if in doubt, the soldiers in Serpukhov-15 were supposed to rely on the computer rather than their own instincts.
Whether nuclear war would definitely ensued is debatable. When the incident first became public, the Kremlin played down its significance, saying that a retaliatory strike would only have been launched after confirmation from multiple sources. Stanlislav, however, points out that Soviet army did not have a culture that encouraged differences of opinion, and had he confirmed the attack, nobody else 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. “Nobody will correct me, they will all agree with me. It’s easy to agree, but I will be the only one responsible.”
‘What do these arses expect from me, a speech?’ Petrov mutters when told of his award. ‘Vapid morons!’
Could such an incident happen now? Ironically, the world seems a significantly more dangerous place today than when Anthony first knocked on Petrov’s door a decade ago. The Ukraine crisis has seen East-West relations at their worst since the Cold War, with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, making an infamous speech last year in which he warned the West not to forget “that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
The film suggests that the real danger is each side being convinced the other is the aggressor. During his road trip to the US, Petrov also get to South Dakota to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which shows the last remaining Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that formed part of America’s Cold War era “trigger response”.
A military man to the end, Petrov is perhaps the first visitor to actively admire the preserved missile – “beautiful, like a woman with a tight waist”. But he brands the museum’s tour guide a “brainless goat” when he suggests that only the Soviets would have launched a pre-emptive first 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. Galina, translate that please.”