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The Day The World ‘Almost’ Died

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (September 7, 1939 – May 19, 2017), a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, had saved the world on September 26, 1983.

During the Cold War between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, any sort of tension between the two countries used to panic the entire world. By that time, Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the Global Community aware of the horrors of nuclear explosions. In the early hours of September 26 (1983), the Soviet Military received a computer warning of a flurry of US missiles flying toward the Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union was fully prepared for such a situation, the Kremlin decided to launch a counter nuclear attack, if missiles were fired at them by Washington DC.

Stanislav Petrov

Petrov was the Duty Officer at the Command Centre of the Oko Nuclear early-warning system, when the system reported that a missile had been launched from the US, followed by up to five more. His job was to monitor whether there was any sort of aggression towards his country, and to inform the higher authorities of the same, on an urgent basis. However, Petrov decided to disobey orders, going against Soviet military protocol. He was well aware of what might happen, if he informed the higher authorities. Instead, Petrov said that he had no such information that the US could launch a missile attack. He knew that he was violating the protocol by hiding the information, and he could have to face the consequences for this violation. Still, he decided not to inform the higher authorities, as such a decision could trigger a nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

The siren blared right in front of the Lieutenant Colonel, as he received the signal of the first missile coming from the US within seconds. The computer also warned him that there was no mistake in this signal. Petrov’s computer used to receive such a signal after clearing 28 security levels. Hence, the Soviet Military officer was quite sure that the US launched a missile attack. The computer also warned that one of those five missiles was about to land near the Command Centre. Realising that his death was imminent, he continued to smoke cigarettes, one after another.

Like Petrov, other Soviet Defence experts, too, were monitoring the movements of the US’ missile forces. They came to Petrov in order to confirm the warning. When Petrov informed them that he received no such warning; those experts said that they, too, received no such warning. Then, a surprised Petrov talked to other officials of the Command Centre, and realised that his computer was sending wrong signals due to a technical malfunction!

Petrov had to spend 23 anxious minutes on that day to realise that it was a false alarm, and the US fired no missiles. Later, the Soviet Army personnel claimed that he was the only officer in his group who had the highest moral education, while all others were professional soldiers who were taught to follow orders only. Petrov was also convinced that a nuclear attack would have been certain on that day, had any other Duty Officer been in his place.

Petrov received a lot of accolades for his decision. He also received several international awards. He used to believe that he had only performed his duty, on September 26, 1983. After his retirement in 1984, Petrov began living in a small town near Moscow. He passed away on May 19, 2017, at the age of 77. Petrov, who was married to Raisa Petrova (in 1973), left a son, Dmitri, and a daughter, Yelena.

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