Although he died back in May of this year, Stanislav Petrov’s death has only recently been reported by mainstream media in the West. That’s a sad state of affairs since Petrov literally saved the world one day when a nuclear war was closer than ever.
Wikipedia explains what happened:
26 September 1983, just three weeks after the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported that a missile had been launched from the United States, followed by up to five more. Petrov judged the reports to be a false alarm.
In order to understand how big of a deal that call was, you’ve got to imagine what it was like in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was U.S. president. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were rising — fast. This was not only due to Reagan’s persistent fiery (and correct!) attitude towards the Soviets but also because the Soviet Union was suffering. A lot. They couldn’t win the war in Afghanistan and their economy was on the brink of collapse.
At that moment, with tensions on the rise, with a weakening Soviet Union and a U.S. president who seemed hell-bent on bringing the fight to Moscow, Petrov was the only one with common sense enough to understand that the U.S. wouldn’t suddenly launch a nuclear war, even though his computers said that’s exactly what had just happened.
Had Petrov been wrong, his decision would’ve led to the destruction of the Soviet Union. It would’ve literally been wiped off the map… and there wouldn’t have been a second chance to strike back at the American enemy.
What made Petrov different from his fellow officers was his civilian training. The system told him that the Americans had fired at least 5 missiles at the Soviet Union but he just didn’t believe it. After all, he argued, if the Americans went to war, they’d go all-out. Five missiles wouldn’t cut it. Besides, he thought, the alarm system was brand new and therefore not as reliable as it should’ve been.
That’s why he made the decision not to inform his superiors about the alarm. He let it happen. Shortly after, of course, he was proven right: there was no attack coming, the system had failed.
There is little doubt that if any other officer was on duty at that moment, the world would’ve had a nuclear war on its hands right then and there. They would’ve informed their superiors that the Americans launched missiles at the Soviet Union, and the Soviet leadership would’ve instantly and immediately returned fire. If that had happened the U.S. would’ve had to answer in kind, of course, resulting in utter destruction and tens of millions of deaths on both sides.
It didn’t happen very often during the Cold War — if at all — but Petrov was a Soviet officer who saved countless lives. And he did so because he broke with the hierarchy and structure of the Soviet system, deciding that he as an individual knew better than the collectivist system created by his “superiors.”
If that doesn’t sum up the failure of communism in one paragraph, I don’t know what does.