written by Todd DePastino

1983 portrait of Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov

Stanislav Petrov, ca., 1983

Just past midnight on September 26, 1983—25 days after the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007—Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces may have saved the world through his inaction.

Petrov had just come on duty as commander of the satellite control bunker at Serpukhov-15 , a military installation 62 miles south of Moscow. The bunker was a key nerve center of the Soviet Union’s new early warning system, Oko (Russian for “Eye”), which monitored North America for possible Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launches.

Minutes after settling into his chair, an alarm pierced the quiet room. A usually dull panel of buttons, switches, and screens began pulsing with the command Запуск! – “LAUNCH!”

The new computer system, designed to interpret data transmitted by the Soviet satellites, had detected the launch of a single Minuteman ICBM from the United States. The warhead was scheduled to land inside the Soviet Union in 12 minutes.

Petrov’s first response was to assume a computer malfunction, false alarm. But then, the siren blared again, announcing another ICBM launch. Then, another alarm. Then, another. In the span of a few short minutes, the United States, it seemed, had launched five nuclear missiles, the dreaded first strike of World War III.

Oko relied on a strict and rapid reporting of the launch up the chain of command: Petrov to headquarters, headquarters to general staff, general staff to Yuri Andropov, who would approve a retaliatory strike.

But instead of picking up the phone and initiating the sequence, Petrov did nothing.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later say.

The computer system had been rushed into service, and Petrov didn’t trust it. Also, Soviet radar defenses, which only detected missiles once they were over the horizon, couldn’t corroborate what the satellites were reporting. Finally, Petrov had always understood that when the US launched its first strike, it would be massive. Not five missiles, but hundreds, intended to decapitate the Soviet state.

So, five minutes after the first siren, Lt. Col. Petrov decided not to report the alarms. Then, he sweated it out. For an excruciating 15 minutes, Petrov waited to learn the fate of his gambit. If the warheads struck, Petrov had doomed his country. If they didn’t, he may have saved it.

Radar towers at Serpukhov-15 in Soviet Union


An investigation afterward found that the false alarms had been caused by a rare atmospheric condition, related to the autumnal equinox, causing the sun to reflect off high-altitude clouds over North Dakota, which the satellites reported as ICBM launches.

For his heroic inaction and defiance of protocol, Petrov was rewarded with an intense interrogation and a reprimand that sidetracked his career. He was reassigned to less sensitive duty and not given promotions.

The world learned of the Petrov Incident in 1998, after a Soviet general published memoirs describing it. Over the next two decades, the legend of Stanislav Petrov would grow, and the quiet pensioner would be drawn from his Moscow apartment to collect awards and recognitions across the globe, including the United Nations. In 2014, a documentary film about him came out titled “The Man Who Saved the World.”

“I’m not a hero,” says Petrov in the film. “I was just at the right place at the right time.”