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'Just Doing His Job': Son Recalls Life Of Soviet Colonel Heralded For Averting Nuclear War

Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize at the Semper Opera in Dresden, Germany, in February 2013.
Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize at the Semper Opera in Dresden, Germany, in February 2013.

To his family, Stanislav Petrov wasn't the man who may very well have saved the world in 1983.

He was instead a modest man who was wary of accolades, held his closest relatives dear, and lived out his final days in a suburban Moscow apartment with his son, Dmitry.

Petrov, who as a Soviet lieutenant colonel made a critical decision to disregard an early-warning satellite system suggesting the United States had launched a nuclear attack, died on May 19. His death went unnoticed until earlier this month, when Karl Schumacher, a German blogger and filmmaker who was friends with Petrov, first reported it.

In one of the few interviews he has given to the press, Dmitry Petrov told RFE/RL that his father had been ill since November 2016, hospitalized with intestinal problems. He was a heavy smoker, as well.

Petrov's role in possibly preventing nuclear catastrophe went unheralded for years. That his death was also overlooked until four months afterward was in some ways a reflection of his modesty.

"I didn't tell anyone [about his death], because something like this isn't some kind of wedding or celebration. It's just the regular death of a person. That's why I didn't tell anyone, just relatives. As for the rest, I started telling them gradually. If someone asked, I told them, of course," Dmitry said.

"The things most dear to him were his family and friends. I told them, of course. As for the rest -- if someone calls, I tell them. I didn't make any special appeals to anyone," he said.

Suspicious Early Warnings

On September 26, 1983, Petrov was on duty at a bunker outside Moscow when the alarm bells on the early-warning system known as Oko went off shortly after midnight.

As he recounted for the BBC in 1998, a satellite had indicated that five ballistic missiles had been fired at the Soviet Union.

His orders were to notify his superiors, who likely would have approved a counterstrike that would have led to a full-on nuclear exchange.

Petrov didn't, because, as he said later, he thought that it seemed odd that a U.S. nuclear strike was launched with just five missiles. What's more, he didn't entirely trust the new launch-detection system, only recently installed, and ground-based radars had failed to corroborate the launches.

A satellite was later discovered to be the culprit, mistaking the sun's reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information failed to do so.

Praised, Then Shunted Aside

Then 44, Petrov was first praised and, he said, was promised a reward. But none came. He was later reprimanded and reassigned. He said that the flaws found in the early-warning system embarrassed high-ranking officers and scientists. He retired early from the military and later had a nervous breakdown.

Dmitry said he was 12 at the time the incident occurred, and Petrov told no one in the family about it, mainly because the information was highly classified, but also because it was exceedingly technical. He remembers his father being at work for three days straight afterward, not sleeping while a special commission investigated the event, and him later coming home completely exhausted.

"He never talked about his work, not to anyone. He didn't like to talk about it because it was very complicated, his work and what was the point of explaining these details to his wife or his children," Dmitry said.

'Just Doing His Job'

It was only after the Soviet collapse that word began to leak out about the incident, and articles began appearing in the Russian media.

"Of course, I was overcome by horror at what could have happened," Dmitry said. "I was of course extremely surprised to learn what happened, and that he was silent about it. Obviously, he couldn't say anything about that moment when the world literally was hanging by a strand of hair."

The curtain of obscurity he lived behind in his later years was lifted in 2006 when he received an award at the United Nations from the Association of World Citizens for "the part he played in averting a catastrophe." Russia's mission to the United Nations downplayed Petrov's story.

He gained further notoriety in 2014 with the release of a Danish documentary called The Man Who Saved The World. Petrov never considered himself deserving of the accolades that came later in his life, Dmitry said.

In Fryazino, the town northeast of Moscow that was home to scientists and other important officials, not many people knew of Petrov's story, though if any asked, Dmitry said he would share the details.

"Few people are interested in this. He did what he did. You know how people respond to this sort of thing? He did it and to hell with him. Some respect him. Some people simply don't care. Some are totally indifferent. Some think that he doesn't deserve any awards," he said.

"The city administration doesn't know yet [that he died], I think," Dmitry said. A local military veterans organization is, however, preparing an official gravestone.

"He was doing his work and he never considered himself was a hero, he was simply doing his job. That's all," Dmitry said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.