The Soviet chess enthusiast who saved the world

Twenty-five years ago this week, a Russian soldier averted a nuclear holocaust, writes PHILIP JACOBSON

When Lt Col Stanislav Petrov arrived to work the graveyard shift at the secret command bunker near Moscow from which the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites were monitored, he was anticipating another routine stint of checking screens and communications systems, with a few chess problems to help pass the time.

But shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, alarms started blaring and a red button on the console in front of Petrov began to flash the single word: “Start”. This signified that an American ballistic missile had been launched and was heading towards the USSR: then the computers linked to the satellites reported that four more missiles were on the way.

As commander of the bunker, Petrov, a 44-year-old rocket specialist, was responsible for deciding whether the horrifying launch data was accurate. If it was, standing orders required immediate notification of the Soviet high command, which would then consult the Kremlin about initiating a swift and massive retaliatory strike against the US. “For 15 seconds we were all in a state of shock,” Petrov recalled years later. “We needed to understand with absolute certainty what came next.”

After five minutes of frantic activity, with his staff begging him to stay cool, Petrov concluded that the incoming launch reports were almost certainly false. A central tenet of the USSR’s Cold War strategy held that any nuclear attack by America would involve the simultaneous launch of hundreds of missiles. In Petrov’s judgment, nobody would carry out a first strike with just five: he was also aware the system had a history of malfunctioning. “My gut feeling was that we were experiencing another systems failure, so I made the decision to report a false alarm.”

trov’s hunch was subsequently confirmed by an official investigation: the satellite alerts that might have created a nuclear holocaust were triggered by an unusual combination of sunlight and high-altitude cloud formations, wrongly interpreted by the computers as a missile launch.

Here is the full story.

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