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What were you doing on the 26th of September 1983? Putting on the Ritz by Taco was number 1 in the charts, Garrett Fitzgerald was Taoiseach, Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp and beginning her struggle to curb the power of the Unions in the UK. Russia and America were led respectively by Ronald Regan and Yuri Andropov, the first Soviet leader to also have been head of the KGB. American and the Soviet union squared off and vied for both influence and dominance across the globe. Gorbachev and his policies of Perestroika and Glansost were still several years away, indeed Regan publicly called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire.  The fundamental European symbol of East versus West division the Berlin Wall was still in operation and indeed just two months later Silvio Proksch would be shot and killed trying to escape East Germany for what he hoped would have been a better life in the West.

The backdrop to Petrov’s actions are important.

For context and for anyone reading under 45 the Soviet Union had deployed SS20s missiles in its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, in response America deployed Pershing missiles in Western Europe. The threat of nuclear war was very real and very present. It impacted on the culture of the time, look at Sting’s song Russians, which effectively hoped that the love of their children would pull the Soviets back from the brink or films like The Day After or Threads. Earlier in 1983 Regan announced the Strategic Defence Initiative which came to be known by the nickname the Star Wars program, which was an attempt to develop a missile shield which would intercept and destroy any incoming ballistic nuclear weapons launched against the US. It didn’t work directly, but arguably it had the knock on effect of bankrupting the Soviet Union down the line as they could not afford to keep spending on their military at the same rate as the US.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or CND underwent a huge surge in members as a result of increasing tension between the superpowers. It had huge female and youth numbers as it was heavily supported by musicians. They ran very visible protest camps like the famous Greenham Common camp, campaigning for the removal of Nuclear Missiles from the UK.

The wider world was still struggling to get over the 1979 Oil Shock, the revolution in Iran and the overthrow of the Shah’s regime lead to  massive drop in production, which was further acerbated by the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. Britian and Argentia had just fought the Falklands War, the US Embassy in Beirut was bombed killing 63 people, the AIDS virus was identified in May that year, in early September the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air 747 after it had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace killing 269 people.  The world in 1983 was tense, nervous and somewhat paranoid. Pretty grim in actual fact. There were very real existential threats, commercially, medically and militarily. With so much destructive power deployed the world was just a simple mistake away from cataclysm. As the saying goes to err is human, but to really screw things up you need a computer.

On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was the officer on duty at the command center of the Oko early warning system near Moscow. If the Oko system picked up any incoming missile  strike his duty was to call his superiors and at the time the Soviet response would have been an immediate and massive nuclear counter strike against the US and Western targets.

Shortly after midnight, the system reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov did not lift the phone and make the call, later the system detected another 4 incoming missiles, yet still Petrov didn’t make the call. Crucially he was not convinced that the system was correct, in fairness it was a new system and it had malfunctioned previously. According to his version of events he made the judgement call it had to be an error because if America were going to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike there would have been hundreds of missiles in the air, not one or a possible maximum of 5. While he was also aware that there was no ground based radar detection to validate the satellite observations, he gambled that he was correct and he sat there and waited until the time had passed until the missiles would have struck without lifting the phone.  It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a freak alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and where the satellites’ were in their orbits when making their observations.

Initially he was commended in the aftermath but acknowledging the flaw in the system and the possibility for false positives would have resulted in more prominent and more powerful people paying the price so in true Russian fashion it was all swept under the carpet and the incident was not revealed to the public until 1998. Petrov subsequently left the army and had a nervous breakdown, which given what he had been through is completely understandable.

The truly horrifying thing is that despite this happening, less than 2 months later the world had the Able Archer exercise, which was resulted in another very close shave with nuclear Armageddon between the 7th and 11th of November 1983.

It is not stretching the truth to say it is highly probable you are alive and reading this today because of Stanislav Petrov’s actions. He is without doubt the most important Russian you’ve never heard of.

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