Back to previous post: Let’s not always see the same hands

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: First debate 2008

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

September 26, 2008

The man who saved the world
Posted by Patrick at 03:38 PM *

Charles Stross notes that many of us are alive right now only because, 25 years ago today, Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces lieutenant colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov exercised judgment under pressure. For which he subsequently lost his job and suffered a nervous breakdown.

His story has been covered before, but you know, I think “saving the world from thermonuclear annihilation, with seconds to spare” merits more than one attaboy.

Comments on The man who saved the world :
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:01 PM:

Yes. It's amazing how many people who've made the right decision under stress are subsequently punished for it, too.

#2 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:28 PM:

Bolshoye spasibo, Stanislav Yevgrafovich.

#3 ::: JJ Fozz ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:41 PM:

Holeeeee shit! The things I have learned from visiting this page. I would like to buy that man a high quality bottle of vodka - and drink it with him.

Funny how life works - this guy makes an incredibly tough decision and gets the shaft - while people like George Bush move effortlessly from one mishap to the next.

#4 ::: Richard S Crawford ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:43 PM:

Today should be an international holiday. Men and women with that kind of courage and integrity should be celebrated, for they have really contributed more to our species and our civilization than any politician ever did.

Me, I just hope I never have to put myself on the line like that. I don't know if I'd be up to it. I hope I would be, but I don't know if I will.

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:46 PM:

Now, that is true honour.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:47 PM:

xeger @ 1... I see nothing unusual in that.

#7 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 04:52 PM:

you mean, my nightmares were REAL, and this guy kept it from happening?


All I can hear now is that synthesized voice saying, "How about a nice game of chess?"

#8 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:12 PM:

What a marvelous man!

I was at Worldcon that year, and when KAL 007 was mentioned by one of the two people I'd just introduced to each other, I walked away.

Because they immediately went into the "security clearance dance." (Both of them worked for the Defense Department, different branches) And I didn't have a security clearance. It's amazing how much you can deduce from watching a conversation from across a room...

"Greetings, Professor --
Indicate your access please,
I've waited at the back door for a long time now..."

#9 ::: Chris Willrich ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:13 PM:

I had never heard about this before. It makes me suddenly feel like I'm living in some improbably happy alternate history. Which is quite a trick these days.

Richard S. Crawford @ #4: Yes, exactly. I'd like to think I'd have that kind of good judgment when the sky seemed to be falling and everyone was screaming at me, but I have to wonder.

May there be many, many more people with this man's cool head, in important places everywhere.

#10 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:49 PM:

I hadn't known about this, either, and I'm glad I know now. I also agree that this should be an international holiday. How does one go about starting something like that? (Thinking that if we had a public holiday celebrating the fact that we're still here, maybe - just maybe - it might serve to remind folks that averting catastrophe and unnecessary conflict and all sorts of other dire happenings is a Good Thing, and to be emulated.)

#11 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:50 PM:

Thank you sir, with all my heart.

On Sept 26, 1983, I was 4. Lived about 100 miles from Washington DC, 10 miles from Harrisburg, 5 miles from Three Mile Island and about 100 miles from Philadelphia. There's also a weapons test site in the under 30 miles zone, and a naval supply depot that was quite large. No shortage of targets, and at this time of year there's no such thing as a good fallout map. And 4 year olds do not have good odds when they get radiation sickness.

(and thanks also to Charlie Stross... finding out 25 years later makes it seem quite cheery.)

#12 ::: Matthew Stevens ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 05:50 PM:

One phrase, though, chilled me:

Even though the Russians have little sympathy to the man who saved millions of American lives

Have little sympathy?! Why in the world not?

#13 ::: Michael Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:00 PM:

I was five, and I lived about 10 miles from Top Gun's location at the time. I've known the story for awhile, but didn't have a name to attach to it.

So yes, thank you, sir.

#14 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:21 PM:

It's funny. All the while people thought that the reason the world didn't go nuclear was because the powers above had managed---barely---been sensible about the whole thing.

We don't realize that it's individuals who make history.

#15 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:31 PM:

It really should be an international holiday.

Thank you, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. You are a true hero.

#16 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:37 PM:

Serge @ 6 ...
Given the industry we both seem to work in, that's not surprising.

Lori Coulson @ 8 ...
Heh. Yes. The "how much do you know/what can we reveal without revealing anything" dance is -very- amusing.

#17 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:43 PM:

xeger @ 16... Yup. And we're the ones who wind up being branded Dolors in the Donkey.

#18 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 06:56 PM:

Reading the link sent shivers down my spine. Thank you sir, whereever you are.

#19 ::: Suzanne M ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 07:04 PM:

Count me as another who had never heard of this incident. I was not yet 11 months old and living, as I do now, just north of NYC when he saved my life. Спасибо, Станислав Евграфович. Heroism indeed. We could use more like you, sir.

#20 ::: londonbard ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 07:52 PM:

Until I read this I'd have said that 1983 was not a good year, for me. Britain was in a bad economic state and decisions were forced on me that led to my losing my career and spending 5 years in severe pain.

I had not heard this story before.

I don't think this area would have been a prime target. How much radiation we'd have got initially might have depended on wind direction. We'd have been saturated with it eventually, of course.

Thank you, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (and thank God for you.)

I agree that this day should be an international holiday. Would readers blogging the link to this story be a good start?

#21 ::: Tom Barclay ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 08:08 PM:

Many, many thanks and good wishes, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. You are a true Hero Of Planet Earth, and of all its nations.

#22 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 08:11 PM:

Rikibeth: All I can hear now is that synthesized voice saying, "How about a nice game of chess?"

That was in 1983, too.

#23 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 08:30 PM:

Like so many others, I had no idea we'd come that close to finding out if mutually assured destruction was all it was cracked up to be.

Assuming that Los Angeles would have been a target because of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, petroleum processing and the aerospace industry, if nothing else, and I might well have been dust had Petrov made a different choice that night, I say we start with the vodka and move quickly into blini-and-caviar territory.

p.s. to Xopher re: your MADmen comment on Stross' board... ***applause***

#24 ::: cmk ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 08:55 PM:

My daughter will be 25 tomorrow.

Talk about making a person consider alternative histories.

#25 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 08:57 PM:

Syd, actually I think I ripped that off from Donald Kingsbury.

#26 ::: Arachne ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 09:05 PM:

I find it a little comforting that his bravery is now on Wikipedia's significant events for September 1983.

He was added on March 27th, 2004.

(Via WikiBlame.)

#27 ::: Natalie L. ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 09:55 PM:

I was 8 and living in Virginia Beach. I don't think my dad had retired from the Navy yet--he retired in fall 1983, but I think it was later. We lived under the final air approach for Oceana Naval Air and not too terribly far from the shipyard in Norfolk. We would have been *toast*.

#28 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 09:59 PM:

I was at college in Washington, DC. Speaking of toast.

Thank you, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.

#29 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 10:07 PM:

I've always thought that Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Boeing, every Republican's favorite Democrat (well, him and HST, now that both of them and their pro-labor domestic policies are safely dead) died of fright that night, unable to believe that someone in Russia wouldn't set loose the ICBMs.

I remember fearing that myself; thanks to Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov for being smarter than the rest of us.

#30 ::: Scott Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 10:19 PM:

I was in high school, in Spencerport, NY. About 10 miles from Eastman Kodak's largest production facility - where, among other things, they made extremely high speed infra-red film for intelligence gathering (U-2 and SR-71 flyovers, satellite reconnaissance, etc.).

I might have lived through a Soviet missile attack - Russian missiles weren't believed to be all that accurate, we were upwind of any fallout patterns (and too far away from Buffalo or Toronto - I'm pretty sure Buffalo's pattern would have fallen out over Lake Ontario, mostly.

But I might not have - the problem with the grenade dispersion table is always that it could end up back in your lap when you roll on it. Or they might have used a Really Big missile on Kodak - or targeted the airport instead.

In any case, even back then, I'd rather not have had to live through the aftermath, even if my family was probably better prepared for it than most in Spencerport. I'm really rather glad I didn't have to.

The vodka is Absolut, not Stoli, because that's what's in the house. But here's to you, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, late of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Bolshoye spasiba, comrade. You made the right call. Thank you.

#31 ::: Marc Willner ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 10:28 PM:

Fortunately for me, I had transfered out of the missile warning sensor in North Dakota 1 year before, or I would have has a 1/5 chance of being on duty to track the retaliatory missiles inbound, along with the BMEWS crews in Alaska and Greenland.

He not only saved millions of American lives, but millions of Soviet lives as well, since we would have probably retaliated.

I will join in any toast to Col. Petrov.

#32 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2008, 11:45 PM:

I was living just south of Boston.

It has pretty much been considered a given that most of the eastern 2/3ds of Massachusetts (due to r&d and manufacturing facilities, air bases, and universities such as MIT and WPI [more research labs]) would wind up as a glassy crater that would glow a soft blue at night...

Mark -- # 31 -- Yes, the same thought I had -- especially since any "retaliatory" strike would kill millions of US and Canadian residents, and what would be viewed by "our side" as a preemptive first strike against us would have triggered an all-out reaction, especially with Reagan as president, which would have killed millions of Soviet citizens as well.

#33 ::: Leslie in CA ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 12:07 AM:

Thank you, Stanislav Yevgrafovich; may history be kinder to you than your contemporaries were. An international holiday is an excellent idea.

#34 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 12:20 AM:

I'm pretty sure I would have been born. I'm pretty sure I would have been mostly okay.

I am certain that I prefer this world, the saved one. I'll raise a glass of cider for him.

#35 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 12:31 AM:

Xopher @ 25:

Oh. ***thinks*** Then will you at least take kudos for being a clever quotation thief? :)

***goes away to check into Kingsbury's work***

#36 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 02:57 AM:

I couldn't help but think that, as Bilbo's Birthday is a few days earlier, we could double up on the holiday.

After all, this guy had a Ring of Power too, and chose not to dial the number.

#37 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 11:08 AM:

Thanks for this. My gratitude for existence was reinvigorated.

#38 ::: Arwen ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 12:28 PM:

Thank you very much. I had no idea. Our hero, indeed. (At the time, I lived about twenty miles from Sikorsky's main plant, which I imagine would've been a target... ::shudder::)

#39 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 04:10 PM:

Yeah... three years ago I said I was gonna have a party the next time around. Three years running I've been toasting alone.

Silly me.

It does deserve being repeated, Stanislav Petrov Saved Your Life.

Someday Bear will make me blini.

#40 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 06:16 PM:

I would love to know if there have been any US soldiers who showed similar wisdom and restraint, when faced with a choice between orders and peace.

Probably because of the declassification that came with the fall of the USSR, the only such stories I've heard have been of Soviet soldiers. But such courage is needed by everyone who has a job where you might have to choose for death and war.

But many thanks to Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov! Even those of us who would have been missed by a direct hit probably owe our lives to him, given the odds of surviving the chaos that would have followed such a war.

#41 ::: Hob ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 06:49 PM:

Ursula, I'd love to know that too. There probably were.

I'll toast Petrov but with mixed feelings. It shouldn't have ever been that way, and in some twisted way I can't help being almost mad at the poor guy for reminding me that it was that way (and still to some extent is). More rant here.

Will someone please tell me something that was good about the '80s? It sucks when all the things I remember are about horrible death, rumors of same, threat of same, general venality and jingo-yahoo crap of more or less the kind that's thriving right now.

#42 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 08:40 PM:

Two of my three daughters were born in the '80s. They're great kids.

#43 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 09:52 PM:

Hob, my list of "things that were good about the '80s" would read like a list of New Wave and postpunk bands. It would get very long, very fast.

Also, my best friend was born in December 1980.

#44 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 10:31 PM:

The 1980s:

The Jamaican bobsled team competed in the Calgary Olympics, a feat which I missed completely as I was in vet school and not paying attention.

MTV started (and back then, actually showed music videos), although I wasn't watching it (see item one, above).

Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers began in the early 80s, along with the growing popularity of home computers. My brother got his first one, an Apple IIe, with his bar mitzvah money.

The South African war with Angola (and Namibia, and Zambia) ended in the late 80s.

St. Kitts was granted independence from Great Britain, although this is a dubious distinction IMHO.

Solidarity in Poland.

A Fish Called Wanda was released in 1988.

Overall, the 80s weren't too bad, in my humble retrospectoscope (not to be confused with the rectal spectroscope).

#45 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 10:35 PM:

Y'know, Stanislav Yevgrafovich will be 70 next year. What if we each sent him a birthday card, with our thanks?

#46 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 10:41 PM:

Ginger @ 44... the 80s weren't too bad, in my humble retrospectoscope

Mine began with my first worldcon in Boston, followed by a broken heart in Denver, and a few years later getting married in Toronto and watching Forbidden Planet with our guests, so I'd say they worked out ok.

#47 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 11:17 PM:

I had my two renal failures, and the massive stroke & coma, in the 80s.

#48 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 11:24 PM:

Ginger, I have what purports to be his address.

All in all, I'd say don't wait. We could all arrange to get cards, and on a given day put them in the post. The date (08.26.1983) and a thank you, would probably be more than enough.

#49 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2008, 11:37 PM:

Regarding sending him cards -

The Soviets found this incident embarrassing, and seemed to make his life difficult over it. The current Russian administration seems to be increasingly repressive, and looking back fondly towards the Soviet "glory days."

Under these circumstances, would noticeable attention from westerners, such as getting a lot of cards through the official post, be a joy, or would it be unwanted attention, that might lead to more negative official attention?

It would be horrible if our honest expressions of thanks and admiration were to make life more difficult for this gentleman, when he's already had his life made difficult due to this action.

And while making a public statement about what is right is a good thing, doing so when someone else will suffer negative consequences isn't so good.

(I'm not sure what it says about my brain that I think of these things, but I think they need to be thought of before any such action.)

#50 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 01:18 AM:

Torillin @ 11

If memory serves, you were therefore also less than 30 miles from Carlisle Barracks. Not far from there there is a very deep hole in the ground where the Joint Chiefs of Staff go in case of nuclear war. I am fairly sure it was a major target of Russian missiles; because it was a very hard target it would have been hit by several of the biggest warheads they could fit in a missile.

Taking part in a simulation of a nuclear war there in the late 1960's was an experience that made me deeply grateful to Colonel Petrov many years later when I found out about his heroism.

#51 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 01:46 AM:

Ursula L @ 49

Umm. That's a nasty thought. I would very much like to let Colonel Petrov know that a lot of people are very grateful for what he did, but I sure would not like to get TPTB in Russia annoyed at him. In that past that was known to be a bad career choice, and highly deleterious to one's health. And the current Strong Man, Putin, has strong ties to that past.

Still, there ought to be a way to show our gratitude that won't get him a visit from the FSB. Maybe just one letter with a lot of signatures?

#52 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 03:02 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 51 ...
What are the odds that somebody on makinglight is either in the correct part of Russia, or happens to know somebody reliable that is, and might be able to provide (apologies, but I couldn't resist, given the cold war references) good intelligence.

#53 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 04:57 AM:

Re: the idea of a single card -- perhaps a card that includes a printout of the comments here and at Charlie's blog?

#54 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 08:25 AM:

I wonder if Petrov had seen Dr. Strangelove...

The thing that's so sick about the Russians behaving as they did towards him was that he saved millions of Russian lives too. He should be a hero. Of course, in earlier times in Russia, he would have been taken out and shot or sent to the Gulag.

I like the idea of sending him a birthday cards. I wonder if there's a way to set up a PayPal account for him? Or is there any way to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize?

#55 ::: crazysoph ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 11:29 AM:

Laurie Mann @ 54:

Qualified nominators,

and the process,

Crazy(and saying, in a silly way, how Google is her friend)Soph

#56 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 12:44 PM:

Joining that little side discussion, more good things (for me) about the Eighties: I got a full-time job at Locus; I moved in with the guy I would eventually marry (we've been together 25 years now); I went to a lot of great music events; I was in my 30s!

What sucked: most of the politics, and increasing amounts of the culture. But -- averted nuclear Armegeddon aside (that was a dead-end alternate future) -- the worst was yet to come....

#57 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 02:12 PM:

Former president Jimmy Carter, as a previous winner, is a valid Nobel nominator. Contacting him about nominating Stanislav Petrov for the Peace Prize could likely be done through the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, unless someone here has good Bacon Number with him.

#58 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2008, 07:51 PM:

My Bacon number is good (2) but the connection is tenuous. I know someone who has a friend who has a bacon number of not worse then 3, but the connection is stronger.

Enquiries shall be made.

#59 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 04:40 AM:

I was living in a village seven miles from Colchester Barracks, within a mile of a radar tower.

Here's to you, Stanislav.

#60 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 06:00 AM:

Faren Miller @ 56... more good things (for me) about the Eighties: I got a full-time job at Locus

I remember seeing photos of you from that era a couple of years ago when looking thru boxed-away-in-the-garage issues. I dare not think of the dust I probably inhaled in the process. :-)

#61 ::: zornhau ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 07:38 AM:

Forget cards - if this chap's still alive, I wonder if we could send him some money?

#62 ::: queenbookwench ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 12:49 PM:

I've been lurking at ML for a long time (a couple of years now) but have never commented.

I just wanted to thank Patrick for this post and links, because I had never heard of Petrov and his story.

I was 5 years old in 1983. It's funny--awhile back there was a thread (I think it was heree on ML) about what the first news event was that you could remember. Mine was Samantha Smith dying in a plane crash, and I clearly remember what a big deal it was for her to go to the Soviet Union.

#63 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 01:54 PM:

#40: I would love to know if there have been any US soldiers who showed similar wisdom and restraint, when faced with a choice between orders and peace.

Apparently, yes. A comment on a friend's blog post about Petrov says:

"Sadly, we don't seem to know the name of the guy who stopped US bombers taking off for Moscow when an alarm indicated Communist infiltrators attacking a bomber base... the bombers were on the runway, but the guy drove out in a jeep in front of them. The infiltrator turned out to be a naughty bear who had climbed over the fence."

#64 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2008, 03:11 PM:

Where is this guy actually living? Who knows flight crews who go to Russia? Who knows cruise ships' people? Are there any Tour Agents still in business? Start there. Find additional links in the chain once across the border. I'm full of good suggestions that I have no connections to start.

A hand-delivered package would be a good way to go.

I'd contribute. And suggesting the Nobel via Jimmy Carter is a wonderful idea.

#65 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2008, 11:24 PM:

Carol Kimball #64: And suggesting the Nobel via Jimmy Carter is a wonderful idea.

Some Finnish guy I'd never heard of before won it this year, so we're tough out of luck until next time.

#66 ::: Jacque Marshall ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 04:35 PM:

Noted mathematician and philospher John Russell points out that had Stanislav Yevgrafovich not performed this vital duty in 1983, we would never have gotten to find out if George Orwell was right.

#67 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2008, 08:08 PM:

Earl @65 Martti Ahtisaari? Didn't know his name, but think I remember hearing of involvement with Aceh (not acknowledged here). Looks like he's been involved with much good work. It's sad so many who do good things for the world are so little known — Peace Prize is great to remind us.

#68 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2011, 07:59 AM:

Not quite an American counterpart to Mr. Petrov, but we have Maj. Harold Hering, an Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age.

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.