Wednesday, 26 September 2007

The man who saved the world

That you are in a position to read this – or anything else for that matter – is down to the bloke in this picture. You probably don’t recognise him. Stanislav Petrov was a Soviet officer in a nuclear early warning bunker in the 1980’s.

On this day in 1983 he made the courageous decision not to respond to an indicated incoming pre-emptive US nuclear missile attack. He was not confident in the unreliable Soviet warning systems and knowing the consequences to be unthinkable, he ignored all the protocols and procedures, and so recorded it as a false alarm.

Had he not done so, we would all very probably either not be here at all or living in some kind of post- apocalyptic wasteland.

And if that sounds melodramatic, in the 80’s mutually assured destruction seemed to be pretty much a given. In these late stages of the Cold War, ‘accidental escalation’ was a much talked-about scenario. Only a few weeks earlier a ‘misunderstanding’ had led to the Soviets shotting down a Korean airliner, killing all on board, and tensions were running very high with all systems in a state of highest alert.

The Soviets were embarrassed: The inquiry into Petrov’s decision exposed fundamental flaws in their early warning systems and he ended up being reprimanded for disobeying orders; early retirement and a nervous breakdown followed.

It took another ten years for his actions to become known to the outside world – when they did he was honoured by the United Nations. But to this day the Russian Federation try to downplay the significance of his actions, saying that the systems were sufficiently robust that a retaliatory strike could not have been launched.

It goes to show the effect that just one person trying to do the right thing can have, even in the most fucked-up situation. I find that pretty inspiring.

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