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Stanislav Petrov - The Man Who Stopped Nuclear War

Sep 27, 2022
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25
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On September 26th, 1983, the Soviet early-warning systems indicated that five ballistic missiles were flying towards the USSR.

Going against all his training, Stanislav Petrov decided to not raise the alarm. The cool and calm head of this one man may well have prevented a nuclear holocaust.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Stanislav Petrov, the man who some have said “saved the world”.

[00:00:31] At a time of intense geopolitical tension, Petrov’s common sense, his cool and calm demeanour, saved the world from nuclear holocaust.

[00:00:42] But interestingly enough, it wasn’t because of what he did, but rather, what he didn’t do…

[00:00:49] So let's jump straight into it, and talk about Stanislav Petrov - the man who saved the world.

[00:00:57] It was the 26th of September, 1983.

[00:01:01] The world was on edge.

[00:01:04] The world’s two major superpowers, the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the USSR, were trapped in a tense ‘Cold War’ - a decades-long political standoff that threatened to plunge the globe into nuclear war.

[00:01:22] You may well remember this time yourself. It was an era where people across the world genuinely worried that World War III, and the end of the world, could come at any minute.

[00:01:36] That morning a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow.

[00:01:45] The bunker base housed the command centre of the Soviet early-warning satellites, which operated under the code name Oko.

[00:01:55] This Oko early-warning system was used to detect incoming nuclear missiles, missiles that had been launched at the Soviet Union.

[00:02:05] In the early hours of the morning on the 26th, 44 year old Stansilav Petrov was working, like any other day, until, suddenly, there was an alarm.

[00:02:17] The Soviet nuclear early-warning system was going off.

[00:02:21] What was happening?

[00:02:22] Were the Americans attacking?

[00:02:24] Was the Cold War about to blow hot?

[00:02:28] To his horror, Petrov realised it wasn’t just one missile, or two, or even three, but five intercontinental ballistic missiles that were heading straight for the Soviet Union.

[00:02:43] Soviet protocol, standard procedure, at the time, was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, to fire weapons back at the United States. 

[00:02:54] Effectively, to plunge the world into the kind of nuclear conflict that everyone had feared for so long.

[00:03:02] But Petrov, whose job was to detect incoming threats and report them to his superiors, thought there was something ‘off’.

[00:03:12] Something just wasn’t quite right.

[00:03:15] Breaking protocol, Petrov did not report the incoming missiles to his military bosses, to his superiors

[00:03:23] He gathered his thoughts, and decided it was a false alarm. 

[00:03:28] Then, he waited.

[00:03:31] And waited.

[00:03:32] Were five nuclear bombs about to rain down on the Soviet Union, and had Petrov’s decision to not tell his bosses, to fail to do the one job that he was supposed to do, had this cost the Soviet Union crucial time at the start of World War III?

[00:03:50] Fortunately, as you might have guessed by now, there were no nuclear bombs flying towards the Soviet Union. 

[00:03:58] Petrov, it later turned out, was right.

[00:04:01] The system had malfunctioned - it was a false alarm.

[00:04:06] This decision, this decision that went against all Soviet protocols and all of his training, and a decision that would later cost him dearly, may well have saved the world from nuclear destruction.

[00:04:21] So, who was this man, this man who you could convincingly argue we are to thank for preventing nuclear war?

[00:04:29] He’s perhaps an unlikely hero.

[00:04:32] Stanilsav Petrov was born on the 7th of September, 1939, just six days after Hitler invaded Poland, in a small town near Vladivostok - a far-eastern outpost of the Soviet Union close to the modern day borders with China and North Korea.

[00:04:51] He was the son of a nurse and a fighter pilot who flew aircraft during the Second World War.

[00:04:58] After graduating from Kyiv Military Aviation Engineering Academy in 1972, Petrov followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Soviet Air Defence Force.

[00:05:10] He quickly began working on the newly-designed early warning system that detected ballistic missile attacks from NATO countries - in particular the United States.

[00:05:21] This was the very system that would malfunction, and leave Petrov with a monumental decision to make.

[00:05:29] Before we move into the events of that fateful day, and exactly how Petrov saved the world from near-certain nuclear destruction, we should talk first, briefly, about the Cold War.

[00:05:41] Now, you will no doubt know about the Cold War, and if you were born before the early 1990s, well, you also lived through at least part of it.

[00:05:51] But let’s quickly remind ourselves about how it “started”, and what had happened in the lead up to the events of September 26th of 1983.

[00:06:01] We need to go back to the end of the Second World War.

[00:06:05] During World War II, the threat of Hitler brought together some unlikely countries, including the UK, the US, and Russia - the Soviet Union as it was then.

[00:06:17] This predominantly Western alliance fought together, on the same side, united against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, Italy and Japan. 

[00:06:28] While the British and Americans forces fought against the Nazis on the western front, in Germany, France, and Belgium, the Soviets fought alone, sustaining heavy losses, on the brutal Eastern front.

[00:06:42] At the end of the war, in 1945, the Americans and Soviets eventually encircled Berlin - the Soviets approaching from the East, the Americans from the West - and defeated Nazism.

[00:06:55] Allies, yes.

[00:06:58] Trusting friends? Most definitely not.

[00:07:01] Although the wartime leaders, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Party, worked together militarily, and even appeared in public and took photos together, this was mainly for propaganda reasons, and to maintain the wartime spirit.

[00:07:23] For many on both the Soviet and American sides, their wartime relationship was a case of the famous saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

[00:07:34] But below the surface all was not as it seemed.

[00:07:38] The Americans in particular had deep fears and suspicions about communism, they were worried about Stalin’s own authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union, and what he would do after the war had ended.

[00:07:51] Stalin, on the other hand, hated that the British and Americans had for years refused to include Russia as a major player in world politics, treated it as an outsider, not to be trusted, but were happy to allow tens of millions of Russians to die fighting their common enemy on the eastern front. And he also saw the defeat of Hitler as an opportunity to greatly expand his territories to the West of Russia.

[00:08:20] When the war ended and Germany was split in two, this distrust between East and West grew.

[00:08:28] Americans feared Stalin wanted the rest of Germany, and to continue expanding communism across Eastern and Central Europe.

[00:08:37] The Soviets hated the amount of soldiers and weapons the Americans kept in Europe after the war - so close to the USSR - as well as America’s increasing role on the global political scene.

[00:08:50] In order to try and slow down the expansion of the USSR, the Americans initially adopted a policy of what they called ‘containment’.

[00:09:00] This containment strategy meant the U.S was committed to fighting the growth of communism wherever it was in the world, and, as a result, meant they began stockpiling arms, making and storing weapons.

[00:09:15] After the atomic bombs Americans had dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan at the end of the war, both the Americans and the Soviets knew the power of atomic weapons and their capacity to end wars immediately.

[00:09:30] So, an ‘arms race’ began.

[00:09:33] In August of 1949, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb.

[00:09:38] What did the Americans do?

[00:09:40] President Truman, who had taken over from Roosevelt during the last year of the war, announced that the U.S was going to create an even more destructive and dangerous weapon, known as the hydrogen, or H-bomb.

[00:09:54] What did Stalin do? 

[00:09:55] Well, the same thing, of course.

[00:09:57] And this kept going and going.

[00:10:00] The Cold War was, in effect, a major standoff between two paranoid and nervous nuclear superpowers.

[00:10:09] And the first Hydrogen bomb tests, on the pacific Marshall Islands in November of 1952, showed just how destructive they could be, and that humans now had the technological capabilities to destroy life on earth.

[00:10:26] The first test on the Marshall Islands set off a 65-square-km fireball that vaporised one of the islands, and was so powerful that it blew a hole in the ocean floor.

[00:10:39] The Americans calculated that just one H-bomb had the power to destroy half of Manhattan. 

[00:10:47] With each side knowing that the other had the capability to launch an H-bomb at the push of a button, the Cold War was heating up.

[00:10:57] And the weapons stockpile continued to grow.

[00:11:01] By 1955 the Soviets had around 200 nuclear weapons stockpiled, and the Americans a staggering 2,422.

[00:11:12] So the 1950’s and 1960’s were an incredibly tense time, with paranoia growing on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

[00:11:23] The Iron Curtain, by the way, was a term used to describe the political and ideological barrier between eastern and western Europe following the Second World War.

[00:11:34] In the US, the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the USSR seeped into everyday life and culture.

[00:11:42] The phrase ‘reds under the bed’ - red meaning communists, or communist sympathisers - was commonplace, and spoke to the obsessive paranoia about the Soviets in America.

[00:11:54] Americans built bomb shelters in their gardens. 

[00:11:58] British and American films depicted nuclear holocausts and foreign, mutant creatures and UFOs attacking the West - bringing the threat into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of people.

[00:12:11] The Cold War even went into space, with each side desperate not to fall behind in terms of technological developments, and to be seen to be trailing in the arms race.

[00:12:24] This was not only in preparation for what everyone thought was an inevitable conflict, but also to prove the supremacy of capitalism or communism in the battle of ideologies

[00:12:38] But when Richard Nixon became President in 1969, he began a different policy known as “détente” toward the Soviet Union, and things began to change.

[00:12:50] The Cold War cooled down, for a while. Or at least it didn’t get any hotter.

[00:12:56] Knowing that both sides had the military capabilities to wipe each other out, the Soviets and Americans reluctantly came to the negotiating table.

[00:13:06] In 1972, Nixon and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, agreed to the ‘Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty’, known as SALT, which took a small step towards reducing the threat of war.

[00:13:21] SALT, this agreement, limited the number of anti ballistic missile sites each side could have to two, and stopped production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.

[00:13:34] Yet, despite the agreement being hailed as a diplomatic success, it did not deal with single missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads, nor the development of new weapons.

[00:13:47] And despite the progress made, domestic politics soon changed the temperature of the Cold War again. 

[00:13:54] When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, his strict anti-communist approach meant the Cold War began heating up again.

[00:14:05] Reagan ordered more nuclear weapons to be produced, and publically called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ 

[00:14:14] Both sides were getting nervous.

[00:14:16] A 1979 report had calculated that a Soviet nuclear assault would kill 35 to 77 percent of the U.S population - between 82 and 180 million people.

[00:14:31] A U.S retaliatory strike, they estimated, could have killed 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, between 54 million and 108 million people.

[00:14:42] Why such a difference, you might be wondering? 

[00:14:45] Well, according to the report, the USSR’s sparse population density worked in its favour, along with the sheer size of its weapons meaning they were “likely to kill more people while aiming at something else.”

[00:15:00] What’s more, the Soviets knew that top-of-the-range medium-range missiles called Pershing II were about to be strategically placed in western Europe, which would make US missile launches much faster and give the Soviets - people like Petrov - less time to detect and respond to incoming strikes.

[00:15:21] Clearly, having an effective early-warning missile detection system was of crucial importance for the USSR.

[00:15:29] The Soviets were expecting something.

[00:15:32] And American behaviour didn’t help their paranoia

[00:15:36] American ships and submarines circled the Norwegian, Black and Baltic seas, showing the Soviets just how close they could get.

[00:15:44] American bomber planes regularly flew straight for Soviet airspace, only to turn away at the last possible moment.

[00:15:52] And, to make things worse, and more tense, just three weeks before Petrov had to make one of the biggest decisions in human history, the Soviets shot down an aeroplane, Korean Airlines Flight 007.

[00:16:08] Flight 007 was going from New York to Seoul via Alaska. When the Soviets realised it had accidentally strayed into their airspace, just north of Japan, they shot it down, paranoid that it was an American spy plane or bomber.

[00:16:26] Everyone on board was killed. And to make matters worse, included among the dead was a US politician, a Democratic representative in the House of Congress called Larry McDonald.

[00:16:40] The Soviets had unknowingly killed an American politician.

[00:16:45] It had, until a few weeks later, been one of the tensest moments of the Cold War…so far.

[00:16:51] And that’s how we find ourselves just 3 weeks later, on the night of September 26th 1983, with Stanislav Petrov.

[00:17:00] Now, what actually happened that day in September?

[00:17:04] How could the fate of the human race have come down to the temperament of one man?

[00:17:10] Much of the answer comes down to technology.

[00:17:13] It was a technology malfunction.

[00:17:15] A breakdown in the missile-alert system very nearly caused the Soviets to launch their own strike.

[00:17:22] The answer to why this malfunction happened lies in how the Soviet system worked.

[00:17:27] The Americans and Soviets used different alert systems, you see, and had different ways of detecting incoming missiles. 

[00:17:36] Whereas the Americans used satellites that looked down on the earth in its entirety, and tracked missile launches that way, the Soviets did it differently.

[00:17:48] They pointed their satellites at the edge of the earth, the idea being that when missiles were launched, they would quickly rise and show up as silhouettes, shadows against the black background of space.

[00:18:03] Ironically, perhaps, one of the main reasons for this system was to prevent weather phenomena appearing like missile launches to satellites and causing false alarms.

[00:18:14] However, shortly after midnight on September 26th, 1983, a freak weather incident caused Soviet satellites to line up with the sun and the U.S. missile fields it was observing to reflect a huge amount of sunlight directly onto the satellites.

[00:18:33] "The siren howled,” Petrov later said, “but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it." 

[00:18:44] The new system told Petrov that it was not just an alert, but the highest level of alert the system had. 

[00:18:52] The Americans had, it seemed, launched preliminary strikes to wipe out the Soviet Union.

[00:18:59] Nuclear war had begun. 

[00:19:02] "A minute later the siren went off,” Petrov said, “the second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'."

[00:19:16] Soviet protocol at the time was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, and Petrov’s job was to pass the information onto his superiors.

[00:19:26] To underline, it wasn’t his job to decide what to do, or to launch a strike, he wasn’t senior in the military, he only had one task: if the siren goes off, tell someone.

[00:19:40] He knew, however, that his superiors would launch a strike before Petrov had had the chance to properly confirm what was happening.

[00:19:49] But, with the fate of the world in his hands - and literally, a phone in one, an intercom the other - Petrov remained calm.

[00:19:58] Something didn’t feel right.

[00:20:01] Knowing it was still a new system, he had his doubts.

[00:20:05] In addition to tech specialists like Petrov, the Soviets also had other alert systems, and experts tracking potential American missiles from the ground.

[00:20:16] When another satellite radar operator told Petrov that they hadn’t received any alerts on their systems, Petrov began to think it might be a false alarm.

[00:20:26] Why would the Americans only launch a handful of missiles, he thought?

[00:20:32] “When people start a war,” Petrov would later say, “they don’t start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

[00:20:41] “All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders but I couldn't move. I felt as if I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” 

[00:20:51] So, what did Petrov do?

[00:20:54] In the end, nothing.

[00:20:57] Petrov never reported the missile alert to his superiors.

[00:21:01] Instead, he waited, and eventually reported it as a system malfunction

[00:21:07] The whole incident took just a few minutes.

[00:21:10] So what happened next?

[00:21:12] Well, nothing, in fact, and most of the world had no idea that the planet had come so close to nuclear war.

[00:21:20] In the short-term, Petrov’s cool and collected nature prevented a retaliatory strike from the Soviets, which would have surely made the Americans fire back and, just like that, probably plunged the world into nuclear war.

[00:21:35] But in the medium to long-term, things weren’t so positive for Petrov or his career.

[00:21:42] Petrov’s military superiors questioned him at length about his decision making process and judgement, and why he did what he did, going against protocol.

[00:21:52] Initially, he was praised internally for his common sense decision making.

[00:21:58] General Yury Votintsev, the Commander of the USSR’s Missile Defence Units at the time - and the man who made Petrov’s story public years later - praised him and promised him an award.

[00:22:11] He was, however, also reprimanded, told off, for not logging the incident correctly in the systems.

[00:22:19] In the end, Petrov never got his reward. Rewarding him would have put Soviet military leaders in a difficult position.

[00:22:27] Not only did he go against military protocol, but the false alarm highlighted bugs within the Soviet missile detection system, and embarrassed the military bosses and the scientists who had designed it. 

[00:22:41] If Petrov was to be publicly recognised and honoured, they would have had to be punished.

[00:22:47] So instead of being celebrated and thanked, he was denied promotions, reassigned, and took early retirement.

[00:22:56] Indeed, the story was not even known outside the secretive world of the Soviet military until the late 1990s when Votintsev wrote about Petrov in his 1998 memoir.

[00:23:08] With time, however, people began to recognise what Petrov had done.

[00:23:14] In 2006 he received an award from the Association of World Citizens in New York, and in 2013 won the Dresden Peace Prize.

[00:23:24] The country he served never rewarded him for his actions, and he would retire with a small pension in a suburb outside Moscow, before passing away in May of 2017.

[00:23:37] He will go down in history, however, as the unlikely man who just might have saved the world. 

[00:23:45] OK then, that is it for today’s episode on Stanislav Petrov, a man who, with his calm, common sense approach, prevented the world from being plunged into nuclear war.

[00:23:58] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Petrov and his life before today, or this was the first time you’d heard anything about him, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:24:09] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:24:13] It’s one of those times when one unlikely person is required to make a huge decision with far-reaching consequences. Can you think of other examples?

[00:24:22] What do you think would’ve happened if Petrov hadn’t been working that morning in September 1983?

[00:24:29] How different would the world look now?

[00:24:32] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Stanislav Petrov, the man who some have said “saved the world”.

[00:00:31] At a time of intense geopolitical tension, Petrov’s common sense, his cool and calm demeanour, saved the world from nuclear holocaust.

[00:00:42] But interestingly enough, it wasn’t because of what he did, but rather, what he didn’t do…

[00:00:49] So let's jump straight into it, and talk about Stanislav Petrov - the man who saved the world.

[00:00:57] It was the 26th of September, 1983.

[00:01:01] The world was on edge.

[00:01:04] The world’s two major superpowers, the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the USSR, were trapped in a tense ‘Cold War’ - a decades-long political standoff that threatened to plunge the globe into nuclear war.

[00:01:22] You may well remember this time yourself. It was an era where people across the world genuinely worried that World War III, and the end of the world, could come at any minute.

[00:01:36] That morning a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow.

[00:01:45] The bunker base housed the command centre of the Soviet early-warning satellites, which operated under the code name Oko.

[00:01:55] This Oko early-warning system was used to detect incoming nuclear missiles, missiles that had been launched at the Soviet Union.

[00:02:05] In the early hours of the morning on the 26th, 44 year old Stansilav Petrov was working, like any other day, until, suddenly, there was an alarm.

[00:02:17] The Soviet nuclear early-warning system was going off.

[00:02:21] What was happening?

[00:02:22] Were the Americans attacking?

[00:02:24] Was the Cold War about to blow hot?

[00:02:28] To his horror, Petrov realised it wasn’t just one missile, or two, or even three, but five intercontinental ballistic missiles that were heading straight for the Soviet Union.

[00:02:43] Soviet protocol, standard procedure, at the time, was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, to fire weapons back at the United States. 

[00:02:54] Effectively, to plunge the world into the kind of nuclear conflict that everyone had feared for so long.

[00:03:02] But Petrov, whose job was to detect incoming threats and report them to his superiors, thought there was something ‘off’.

[00:03:12] Something just wasn’t quite right.

[00:03:15] Breaking protocol, Petrov did not report the incoming missiles to his military bosses, to his superiors

[00:03:23] He gathered his thoughts, and decided it was a false alarm. 

[00:03:28] Then, he waited.

[00:03:31] And waited.

[00:03:32] Were five nuclear bombs about to rain down on the Soviet Union, and had Petrov’s decision to not tell his bosses, to fail to do the one job that he was supposed to do, had this cost the Soviet Union crucial time at the start of World War III?

[00:03:50] Fortunately, as you might have guessed by now, there were no nuclear bombs flying towards the Soviet Union. 

[00:03:58] Petrov, it later turned out, was right.

[00:04:01] The system had malfunctioned - it was a false alarm.

[00:04:06] This decision, this decision that went against all Soviet protocols and all of his training, and a decision that would later cost him dearly, may well have saved the world from nuclear destruction.

[00:04:21] So, who was this man, this man who you could convincingly argue we are to thank for preventing nuclear war?

[00:04:29] He’s perhaps an unlikely hero.

[00:04:32] Stanilsav Petrov was born on the 7th of September, 1939, just six days after Hitler invaded Poland, in a small town near Vladivostok - a far-eastern outpost of the Soviet Union close to the modern day borders with China and North Korea.

[00:04:51] He was the son of a nurse and a fighter pilot who flew aircraft during the Second World War.

[00:04:58] After graduating from Kyiv Military Aviation Engineering Academy in 1972, Petrov followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Soviet Air Defence Force.

[00:05:10] He quickly began working on the newly-designed early warning system that detected ballistic missile attacks from NATO countries - in particular the United States.

[00:05:21] This was the very system that would malfunction, and leave Petrov with a monumental decision to make.

[00:05:29] Before we move into the events of that fateful day, and exactly how Petrov saved the world from near-certain nuclear destruction, we should talk first, briefly, about the Cold War.

[00:05:41] Now, you will no doubt know about the Cold War, and if you were born before the early 1990s, well, you also lived through at least part of it.

[00:05:51] But let’s quickly remind ourselves about how it “started”, and what had happened in the lead up to the events of September 26th of 1983.

[00:06:01] We need to go back to the end of the Second World War.

[00:06:05] During World War II, the threat of Hitler brought together some unlikely countries, including the UK, the US, and Russia - the Soviet Union as it was then.

[00:06:17] This predominantly Western alliance fought together, on the same side, united against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, Italy and Japan. 

[00:06:28] While the British and Americans forces fought against the Nazis on the western front, in Germany, France, and Belgium, the Soviets fought alone, sustaining heavy losses, on the brutal Eastern front.

[00:06:42] At the end of the war, in 1945, the Americans and Soviets eventually encircled Berlin - the Soviets approaching from the East, the Americans from the West - and defeated Nazism.

[00:06:55] Allies, yes.

[00:06:58] Trusting friends? Most definitely not.

[00:07:01] Although the wartime leaders, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Party, worked together militarily, and even appeared in public and took photos together, this was mainly for propaganda reasons, and to maintain the wartime spirit.

[00:07:23] For many on both the Soviet and American sides, their wartime relationship was a case of the famous saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

[00:07:34] But below the surface all was not as it seemed.

[00:07:38] The Americans in particular had deep fears and suspicions about communism, they were worried about Stalin’s own authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union, and what he would do after the war had ended.

[00:07:51] Stalin, on the other hand, hated that the British and Americans had for years refused to include Russia as a major player in world politics, treated it as an outsider, not to be trusted, but were happy to allow tens of millions of Russians to die fighting their common enemy on the eastern front. And he also saw the defeat of Hitler as an opportunity to greatly expand his territories to the West of Russia.

[00:08:20] When the war ended and Germany was split in two, this distrust between East and West grew.

[00:08:28] Americans feared Stalin wanted the rest of Germany, and to continue expanding communism across Eastern and Central Europe.

[00:08:37] The Soviets hated the amount of soldiers and weapons the Americans kept in Europe after the war - so close to the USSR - as well as America’s increasing role on the global political scene.

[00:08:50] In order to try and slow down the expansion of the USSR, the Americans initially adopted a policy of what they called ‘containment’.

[00:09:00] This containment strategy meant the U.S was committed to fighting the growth of communism wherever it was in the world, and, as a result, meant they began stockpiling arms, making and storing weapons.

[00:09:15] After the atomic bombs Americans had dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan at the end of the war, both the Americans and the Soviets knew the power of atomic weapons and their capacity to end wars immediately.

[00:09:30] So, an ‘arms race’ began.

[00:09:33] In August of 1949, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb.

[00:09:38] What did the Americans do?

[00:09:40] President Truman, who had taken over from Roosevelt during the last year of the war, announced that the U.S was going to create an even more destructive and dangerous weapon, known as the hydrogen, or H-bomb.

[00:09:54] What did Stalin do? 

[00:09:55] Well, the same thing, of course.

[00:09:57] And this kept going and going.

[00:10:00] The Cold War was, in effect, a major standoff between two paranoid and nervous nuclear superpowers.

[00:10:09] And the first Hydrogen bomb tests, on the pacific Marshall Islands in November of 1952, showed just how destructive they could be, and that humans now had the technological capabilities to destroy life on earth.

[00:10:26] The first test on the Marshall Islands set off a 65-square-km fireball that vaporised one of the islands, and was so powerful that it blew a hole in the ocean floor.

[00:10:39] The Americans calculated that just one H-bomb had the power to destroy half of Manhattan. 

[00:10:47] With each side knowing that the other had the capability to launch an H-bomb at the push of a button, the Cold War was heating up.

[00:10:57] And the weapons stockpile continued to grow.

[00:11:01] By 1955 the Soviets had around 200 nuclear weapons stockpiled, and the Americans a staggering 2,422.

[00:11:12] So the 1950’s and 1960’s were an incredibly tense time, with paranoia growing on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

[00:11:23] The Iron Curtain, by the way, was a term used to describe the political and ideological barrier between eastern and western Europe following the Second World War.

[00:11:34] In the US, the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the USSR seeped into everyday life and culture.

[00:11:42] The phrase ‘reds under the bed’ - red meaning communists, or communist sympathisers - was commonplace, and spoke to the obsessive paranoia about the Soviets in America.

[00:11:54] Americans built bomb shelters in their gardens. 

[00:11:58] British and American films depicted nuclear holocausts and foreign, mutant creatures and UFOs attacking the West - bringing the threat into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of people.

[00:12:11] The Cold War even went into space, with each side desperate not to fall behind in terms of technological developments, and to be seen to be trailing in the arms race.

[00:12:24] This was not only in preparation for what everyone thought was an inevitable conflict, but also to prove the supremacy of capitalism or communism in the battle of ideologies

[00:12:38] But when Richard Nixon became President in 1969, he began a different policy known as “détente” toward the Soviet Union, and things began to change.

[00:12:50] The Cold War cooled down, for a while. Or at least it didn’t get any hotter.

[00:12:56] Knowing that both sides had the military capabilities to wipe each other out, the Soviets and Americans reluctantly came to the negotiating table.

[00:13:06] In 1972, Nixon and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, agreed to the ‘Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty’, known as SALT, which took a small step towards reducing the threat of war.

[00:13:21] SALT, this agreement, limited the number of anti ballistic missile sites each side could have to two, and stopped production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.

[00:13:34] Yet, despite the agreement being hailed as a diplomatic success, it did not deal with single missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads, nor the development of new weapons.

[00:13:47] And despite the progress made, domestic politics soon changed the temperature of the Cold War again. 

[00:13:54] When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, his strict anti-communist approach meant the Cold War began heating up again.

[00:14:05] Reagan ordered more nuclear weapons to be produced, and publically called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ 

[00:14:14] Both sides were getting nervous.

[00:14:16] A 1979 report had calculated that a Soviet nuclear assault would kill 35 to 77 percent of the U.S population - between 82 and 180 million people.

[00:14:31] A U.S retaliatory strike, they estimated, could have killed 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, between 54 million and 108 million people.

[00:14:42] Why such a difference, you might be wondering? 

[00:14:45] Well, according to the report, the USSR’s sparse population density worked in its favour, along with the sheer size of its weapons meaning they were “likely to kill more people while aiming at something else.”

[00:15:00] What’s more, the Soviets knew that top-of-the-range medium-range missiles called Pershing II were about to be strategically placed in western Europe, which would make US missile launches much faster and give the Soviets - people like Petrov - less time to detect and respond to incoming strikes.

[00:15:21] Clearly, having an effective early-warning missile detection system was of crucial importance for the USSR.

[00:15:29] The Soviets were expecting something.

[00:15:32] And American behaviour didn’t help their paranoia

[00:15:36] American ships and submarines circled the Norwegian, Black and Baltic seas, showing the Soviets just how close they could get.

[00:15:44] American bomber planes regularly flew straight for Soviet airspace, only to turn away at the last possible moment.

[00:15:52] And, to make things worse, and more tense, just three weeks before Petrov had to make one of the biggest decisions in human history, the Soviets shot down an aeroplane, Korean Airlines Flight 007.

[00:16:08] Flight 007 was going from New York to Seoul via Alaska. When the Soviets realised it had accidentally strayed into their airspace, just north of Japan, they shot it down, paranoid that it was an American spy plane or bomber.

[00:16:26] Everyone on board was killed. And to make matters worse, included among the dead was a US politician, a Democratic representative in the House of Congress called Larry McDonald.

[00:16:40] The Soviets had unknowingly killed an American politician.

[00:16:45] It had, until a few weeks later, been one of the tensest moments of the Cold War…so far.

[00:16:51] And that’s how we find ourselves just 3 weeks later, on the night of September 26th 1983, with Stanislav Petrov.

[00:17:00] Now, what actually happened that day in September?

[00:17:04] How could the fate of the human race have come down to the temperament of one man?

[00:17:10] Much of the answer comes down to technology.

[00:17:13] It was a technology malfunction.

[00:17:15] A breakdown in the missile-alert system very nearly caused the Soviets to launch their own strike.

[00:17:22] The answer to why this malfunction happened lies in how the Soviet system worked.

[00:17:27] The Americans and Soviets used different alert systems, you see, and had different ways of detecting incoming missiles. 

[00:17:36] Whereas the Americans used satellites that looked down on the earth in its entirety, and tracked missile launches that way, the Soviets did it differently.

[00:17:48] They pointed their satellites at the edge of the earth, the idea being that when missiles were launched, they would quickly rise and show up as silhouettes, shadows against the black background of space.

[00:18:03] Ironically, perhaps, one of the main reasons for this system was to prevent weather phenomena appearing like missile launches to satellites and causing false alarms.

[00:18:14] However, shortly after midnight on September 26th, 1983, a freak weather incident caused Soviet satellites to line up with the sun and the U.S. missile fields it was observing to reflect a huge amount of sunlight directly onto the satellites.

[00:18:33] "The siren howled,” Petrov later said, “but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it." 

[00:18:44] The new system told Petrov that it was not just an alert, but the highest level of alert the system had. 

[00:18:52] The Americans had, it seemed, launched preliminary strikes to wipe out the Soviet Union.

[00:18:59] Nuclear war had begun. 

[00:19:02] "A minute later the siren went off,” Petrov said, “the second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'."

[00:19:16] Soviet protocol at the time was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, and Petrov’s job was to pass the information onto his superiors.

[00:19:26] To underline, it wasn’t his job to decide what to do, or to launch a strike, he wasn’t senior in the military, he only had one task: if the siren goes off, tell someone.

[00:19:40] He knew, however, that his superiors would launch a strike before Petrov had had the chance to properly confirm what was happening.

[00:19:49] But, with the fate of the world in his hands - and literally, a phone in one, an intercom the other - Petrov remained calm.

[00:19:58] Something didn’t feel right.

[00:20:01] Knowing it was still a new system, he had his doubts.

[00:20:05] In addition to tech specialists like Petrov, the Soviets also had other alert systems, and experts tracking potential American missiles from the ground.

[00:20:16] When another satellite radar operator told Petrov that they hadn’t received any alerts on their systems, Petrov began to think it might be a false alarm.

[00:20:26] Why would the Americans only launch a handful of missiles, he thought?

[00:20:32] “When people start a war,” Petrov would later say, “they don’t start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

[00:20:41] “All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders but I couldn't move. I felt as if I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” 

[00:20:51] So, what did Petrov do?

[00:20:54] In the end, nothing.

[00:20:57] Petrov never reported the missile alert to his superiors.

[00:21:01] Instead, he waited, and eventually reported it as a system malfunction

[00:21:07] The whole incident took just a few minutes.

[00:21:10] So what happened next?

[00:21:12] Well, nothing, in fact, and most of the world had no idea that the planet had come so close to nuclear war.

[00:21:20] In the short-term, Petrov’s cool and collected nature prevented a retaliatory strike from the Soviets, which would have surely made the Americans fire back and, just like that, probably plunged the world into nuclear war.

[00:21:35] But in the medium to long-term, things weren’t so positive for Petrov or his career.

[00:21:42] Petrov’s military superiors questioned him at length about his decision making process and judgement, and why he did what he did, going against protocol.

[00:21:52] Initially, he was praised internally for his common sense decision making.

[00:21:58] General Yury Votintsev, the Commander of the USSR’s Missile Defence Units at the time - and the man who made Petrov’s story public years later - praised him and promised him an award.

[00:22:11] He was, however, also reprimanded, told off, for not logging the incident correctly in the systems.

[00:22:19] In the end, Petrov never got his reward. Rewarding him would have put Soviet military leaders in a difficult position.

[00:22:27] Not only did he go against military protocol, but the false alarm highlighted bugs within the Soviet missile detection system, and embarrassed the military bosses and the scientists who had designed it. 

[00:22:41] If Petrov was to be publicly recognised and honoured, they would have had to be punished.

[00:22:47] So instead of being celebrated and thanked, he was denied promotions, reassigned, and took early retirement.

[00:22:56] Indeed, the story was not even known outside the secretive world of the Soviet military until the late 1990s when Votintsev wrote about Petrov in his 1998 memoir.

[00:23:08] With time, however, people began to recognise what Petrov had done.

[00:23:14] In 2006 he received an award from the Association of World Citizens in New York, and in 2013 won the Dresden Peace Prize.

[00:23:24] The country he served never rewarded him for his actions, and he would retire with a small pension in a suburb outside Moscow, before passing away in May of 2017.

[00:23:37] He will go down in history, however, as the unlikely man who just might have saved the world. 

[00:23:45] OK then, that is it for today’s episode on Stanislav Petrov, a man who, with his calm, common sense approach, prevented the world from being plunged into nuclear war.

[00:23:58] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Petrov and his life before today, or this was the first time you’d heard anything about him, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:24:09] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:24:13] It’s one of those times when one unlikely person is required to make a huge decision with far-reaching consequences. Can you think of other examples?

[00:24:22] What do you think would’ve happened if Petrov hadn’t been working that morning in September 1983?

[00:24:29] How different would the world look now?

[00:24:32] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Stanislav Petrov, the man who some have said “saved the world”.

[00:00:31] At a time of intense geopolitical tension, Petrov’s common sense, his cool and calm demeanour, saved the world from nuclear holocaust.

[00:00:42] But interestingly enough, it wasn’t because of what he did, but rather, what he didn’t do…

[00:00:49] So let's jump straight into it, and talk about Stanislav Petrov - the man who saved the world.

[00:00:57] It was the 26th of September, 1983.

[00:01:01] The world was on edge.

[00:01:04] The world’s two major superpowers, the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the USSR, were trapped in a tense ‘Cold War’ - a decades-long political standoff that threatened to plunge the globe into nuclear war.

[00:01:22] You may well remember this time yourself. It was an era where people across the world genuinely worried that World War III, and the end of the world, could come at any minute.

[00:01:36] That morning a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow.

[00:01:45] The bunker base housed the command centre of the Soviet early-warning satellites, which operated under the code name Oko.

[00:01:55] This Oko early-warning system was used to detect incoming nuclear missiles, missiles that had been launched at the Soviet Union.

[00:02:05] In the early hours of the morning on the 26th, 44 year old Stansilav Petrov was working, like any other day, until, suddenly, there was an alarm.

[00:02:17] The Soviet nuclear early-warning system was going off.

[00:02:21] What was happening?

[00:02:22] Were the Americans attacking?

[00:02:24] Was the Cold War about to blow hot?

[00:02:28] To his horror, Petrov realised it wasn’t just one missile, or two, or even three, but five intercontinental ballistic missiles that were heading straight for the Soviet Union.

[00:02:43] Soviet protocol, standard procedure, at the time, was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, to fire weapons back at the United States. 

[00:02:54] Effectively, to plunge the world into the kind of nuclear conflict that everyone had feared for so long.

[00:03:02] But Petrov, whose job was to detect incoming threats and report them to his superiors, thought there was something ‘off’.

[00:03:12] Something just wasn’t quite right.

[00:03:15] Breaking protocol, Petrov did not report the incoming missiles to his military bosses, to his superiors

[00:03:23] He gathered his thoughts, and decided it was a false alarm. 

[00:03:28] Then, he waited.

[00:03:31] And waited.

[00:03:32] Were five nuclear bombs about to rain down on the Soviet Union, and had Petrov’s decision to not tell his bosses, to fail to do the one job that he was supposed to do, had this cost the Soviet Union crucial time at the start of World War III?

[00:03:50] Fortunately, as you might have guessed by now, there were no nuclear bombs flying towards the Soviet Union. 

[00:03:58] Petrov, it later turned out, was right.

[00:04:01] The system had malfunctioned - it was a false alarm.

[00:04:06] This decision, this decision that went against all Soviet protocols and all of his training, and a decision that would later cost him dearly, may well have saved the world from nuclear destruction.

[00:04:21] So, who was this man, this man who you could convincingly argue we are to thank for preventing nuclear war?

[00:04:29] He’s perhaps an unlikely hero.

[00:04:32] Stanilsav Petrov was born on the 7th of September, 1939, just six days after Hitler invaded Poland, in a small town near Vladivostok - a far-eastern outpost of the Soviet Union close to the modern day borders with China and North Korea.

[00:04:51] He was the son of a nurse and a fighter pilot who flew aircraft during the Second World War.

[00:04:58] After graduating from Kyiv Military Aviation Engineering Academy in 1972, Petrov followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Soviet Air Defence Force.

[00:05:10] He quickly began working on the newly-designed early warning system that detected ballistic missile attacks from NATO countries - in particular the United States.

[00:05:21] This was the very system that would malfunction, and leave Petrov with a monumental decision to make.

[00:05:29] Before we move into the events of that fateful day, and exactly how Petrov saved the world from near-certain nuclear destruction, we should talk first, briefly, about the Cold War.

[00:05:41] Now, you will no doubt know about the Cold War, and if you were born before the early 1990s, well, you also lived through at least part of it.

[00:05:51] But let’s quickly remind ourselves about how it “started”, and what had happened in the lead up to the events of September 26th of 1983.

[00:06:01] We need to go back to the end of the Second World War.

[00:06:05] During World War II, the threat of Hitler brought together some unlikely countries, including the UK, the US, and Russia - the Soviet Union as it was then.

[00:06:17] This predominantly Western alliance fought together, on the same side, united against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, Italy and Japan. 

[00:06:28] While the British and Americans forces fought against the Nazis on the western front, in Germany, France, and Belgium, the Soviets fought alone, sustaining heavy losses, on the brutal Eastern front.

[00:06:42] At the end of the war, in 1945, the Americans and Soviets eventually encircled Berlin - the Soviets approaching from the East, the Americans from the West - and defeated Nazism.

[00:06:55] Allies, yes.

[00:06:58] Trusting friends? Most definitely not.

[00:07:01] Although the wartime leaders, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Party, worked together militarily, and even appeared in public and took photos together, this was mainly for propaganda reasons, and to maintain the wartime spirit.

[00:07:23] For many on both the Soviet and American sides, their wartime relationship was a case of the famous saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

[00:07:34] But below the surface all was not as it seemed.

[00:07:38] The Americans in particular had deep fears and suspicions about communism, they were worried about Stalin’s own authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union, and what he would do after the war had ended.

[00:07:51] Stalin, on the other hand, hated that the British and Americans had for years refused to include Russia as a major player in world politics, treated it as an outsider, not to be trusted, but were happy to allow tens of millions of Russians to die fighting their common enemy on the eastern front. And he also saw the defeat of Hitler as an opportunity to greatly expand his territories to the West of Russia.

[00:08:20] When the war ended and Germany was split in two, this distrust between East and West grew.

[00:08:28] Americans feared Stalin wanted the rest of Germany, and to continue expanding communism across Eastern and Central Europe.

[00:08:37] The Soviets hated the amount of soldiers and weapons the Americans kept in Europe after the war - so close to the USSR - as well as America’s increasing role on the global political scene.

[00:08:50] In order to try and slow down the expansion of the USSR, the Americans initially adopted a policy of what they called ‘containment’.

[00:09:00] This containment strategy meant the U.S was committed to fighting the growth of communism wherever it was in the world, and, as a result, meant they began stockpiling arms, making and storing weapons.

[00:09:15] After the atomic bombs Americans had dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan at the end of the war, both the Americans and the Soviets knew the power of atomic weapons and their capacity to end wars immediately.

[00:09:30] So, an ‘arms race’ began.

[00:09:33] In August of 1949, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb.

[00:09:38] What did the Americans do?

[00:09:40] President Truman, who had taken over from Roosevelt during the last year of the war, announced that the U.S was going to create an even more destructive and dangerous weapon, known as the hydrogen, or H-bomb.

[00:09:54] What did Stalin do? 

[00:09:55] Well, the same thing, of course.

[00:09:57] And this kept going and going.

[00:10:00] The Cold War was, in effect, a major standoff between two paranoid and nervous nuclear superpowers.

[00:10:09] And the first Hydrogen bomb tests, on the pacific Marshall Islands in November of 1952, showed just how destructive they could be, and that humans now had the technological capabilities to destroy life on earth.

[00:10:26] The first test on the Marshall Islands set off a 65-square-km fireball that vaporised one of the islands, and was so powerful that it blew a hole in the ocean floor.

[00:10:39] The Americans calculated that just one H-bomb had the power to destroy half of Manhattan. 

[00:10:47] With each side knowing that the other had the capability to launch an H-bomb at the push of a button, the Cold War was heating up.

[00:10:57] And the weapons stockpile continued to grow.

[00:11:01] By 1955 the Soviets had around 200 nuclear weapons stockpiled, and the Americans a staggering 2,422.

[00:11:12] So the 1950’s and 1960’s were an incredibly tense time, with paranoia growing on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

[00:11:23] The Iron Curtain, by the way, was a term used to describe the political and ideological barrier between eastern and western Europe following the Second World War.

[00:11:34] In the US, the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the USSR seeped into everyday life and culture.

[00:11:42] The phrase ‘reds under the bed’ - red meaning communists, or communist sympathisers - was commonplace, and spoke to the obsessive paranoia about the Soviets in America.

[00:11:54] Americans built bomb shelters in their gardens. 

[00:11:58] British and American films depicted nuclear holocausts and foreign, mutant creatures and UFOs attacking the West - bringing the threat into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of people.

[00:12:11] The Cold War even went into space, with each side desperate not to fall behind in terms of technological developments, and to be seen to be trailing in the arms race.

[00:12:24] This was not only in preparation for what everyone thought was an inevitable conflict, but also to prove the supremacy of capitalism or communism in the battle of ideologies

[00:12:38] But when Richard Nixon became President in 1969, he began a different policy known as “détente” toward the Soviet Union, and things began to change.

[00:12:50] The Cold War cooled down, for a while. Or at least it didn’t get any hotter.

[00:12:56] Knowing that both sides had the military capabilities to wipe each other out, the Soviets and Americans reluctantly came to the negotiating table.

[00:13:06] In 1972, Nixon and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, agreed to the ‘Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty’, known as SALT, which took a small step towards reducing the threat of war.

[00:13:21] SALT, this agreement, limited the number of anti ballistic missile sites each side could have to two, and stopped production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles.

[00:13:34] Yet, despite the agreement being hailed as a diplomatic success, it did not deal with single missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads, nor the development of new weapons.

[00:13:47] And despite the progress made, domestic politics soon changed the temperature of the Cold War again. 

[00:13:54] When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, his strict anti-communist approach meant the Cold War began heating up again.

[00:14:05] Reagan ordered more nuclear weapons to be produced, and publically called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ 

[00:14:14] Both sides were getting nervous.

[00:14:16] A 1979 report had calculated that a Soviet nuclear assault would kill 35 to 77 percent of the U.S population - between 82 and 180 million people.

[00:14:31] A U.S retaliatory strike, they estimated, could have killed 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, between 54 million and 108 million people.

[00:14:42] Why such a difference, you might be wondering? 

[00:14:45] Well, according to the report, the USSR’s sparse population density worked in its favour, along with the sheer size of its weapons meaning they were “likely to kill more people while aiming at something else.”

[00:15:00] What’s more, the Soviets knew that top-of-the-range medium-range missiles called Pershing II were about to be strategically placed in western Europe, which would make US missile launches much faster and give the Soviets - people like Petrov - less time to detect and respond to incoming strikes.

[00:15:21] Clearly, having an effective early-warning missile detection system was of crucial importance for the USSR.

[00:15:29] The Soviets were expecting something.

[00:15:32] And American behaviour didn’t help their paranoia

[00:15:36] American ships and submarines circled the Norwegian, Black and Baltic seas, showing the Soviets just how close they could get.

[00:15:44] American bomber planes regularly flew straight for Soviet airspace, only to turn away at the last possible moment.

[00:15:52] And, to make things worse, and more tense, just three weeks before Petrov had to make one of the biggest decisions in human history, the Soviets shot down an aeroplane, Korean Airlines Flight 007.

[00:16:08] Flight 007 was going from New York to Seoul via Alaska. When the Soviets realised it had accidentally strayed into their airspace, just north of Japan, they shot it down, paranoid that it was an American spy plane or bomber.

[00:16:26] Everyone on board was killed. And to make matters worse, included among the dead was a US politician, a Democratic representative in the House of Congress called Larry McDonald.

[00:16:40] The Soviets had unknowingly killed an American politician.

[00:16:45] It had, until a few weeks later, been one of the tensest moments of the Cold War…so far.

[00:16:51] And that’s how we find ourselves just 3 weeks later, on the night of September 26th 1983, with Stanislav Petrov.

[00:17:00] Now, what actually happened that day in September?

[00:17:04] How could the fate of the human race have come down to the temperament of one man?

[00:17:10] Much of the answer comes down to technology.

[00:17:13] It was a technology malfunction.

[00:17:15] A breakdown in the missile-alert system very nearly caused the Soviets to launch their own strike.

[00:17:22] The answer to why this malfunction happened lies in how the Soviet system worked.

[00:17:27] The Americans and Soviets used different alert systems, you see, and had different ways of detecting incoming missiles. 

[00:17:36] Whereas the Americans used satellites that looked down on the earth in its entirety, and tracked missile launches that way, the Soviets did it differently.

[00:17:48] They pointed their satellites at the edge of the earth, the idea being that when missiles were launched, they would quickly rise and show up as silhouettes, shadows against the black background of space.

[00:18:03] Ironically, perhaps, one of the main reasons for this system was to prevent weather phenomena appearing like missile launches to satellites and causing false alarms.

[00:18:14] However, shortly after midnight on September 26th, 1983, a freak weather incident caused Soviet satellites to line up with the sun and the U.S. missile fields it was observing to reflect a huge amount of sunlight directly onto the satellites.

[00:18:33] "The siren howled,” Petrov later said, “but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it." 

[00:18:44] The new system told Petrov that it was not just an alert, but the highest level of alert the system had. 

[00:18:52] The Americans had, it seemed, launched preliminary strikes to wipe out the Soviet Union.

[00:18:59] Nuclear war had begun. 

[00:19:02] "A minute later the siren went off,” Petrov said, “the second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'."

[00:19:16] Soviet protocol at the time was to launch immediate retaliatory strikes, and Petrov’s job was to pass the information onto his superiors.

[00:19:26] To underline, it wasn’t his job to decide what to do, or to launch a strike, he wasn’t senior in the military, he only had one task: if the siren goes off, tell someone.

[00:19:40] He knew, however, that his superiors would launch a strike before Petrov had had the chance to properly confirm what was happening.

[00:19:49] But, with the fate of the world in his hands - and literally, a phone in one, an intercom the other - Petrov remained calm.

[00:19:58] Something didn’t feel right.

[00:20:01] Knowing it was still a new system, he had his doubts.

[00:20:05] In addition to tech specialists like Petrov, the Soviets also had other alert systems, and experts tracking potential American missiles from the ground.

[00:20:16] When another satellite radar operator told Petrov that they hadn’t received any alerts on their systems, Petrov began to think it might be a false alarm.

[00:20:26] Why would the Americans only launch a handful of missiles, he thought?

[00:20:32] “When people start a war,” Petrov would later say, “they don’t start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

[00:20:41] “All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders but I couldn't move. I felt as if I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” 

[00:20:51] So, what did Petrov do?

[00:20:54] In the end, nothing.

[00:20:57] Petrov never reported the missile alert to his superiors.

[00:21:01] Instead, he waited, and eventually reported it as a system malfunction

[00:21:07] The whole incident took just a few minutes.

[00:21:10] So what happened next?

[00:21:12] Well, nothing, in fact, and most of the world had no idea that the planet had come so close to nuclear war.

[00:21:20] In the short-term, Petrov’s cool and collected nature prevented a retaliatory strike from the Soviets, which would have surely made the Americans fire back and, just like that, probably plunged the world into nuclear war.

[00:21:35] But in the medium to long-term, things weren’t so positive for Petrov or his career.

[00:21:42] Petrov’s military superiors questioned him at length about his decision making process and judgement, and why he did what he did, going against protocol.

[00:21:52] Initially, he was praised internally for his common sense decision making.

[00:21:58] General Yury Votintsev, the Commander of the USSR’s Missile Defence Units at the time - and the man who made Petrov’s story public years later - praised him and promised him an award.

[00:22:11] He was, however, also reprimanded, told off, for not logging the incident correctly in the systems.

[00:22:19] In the end, Petrov never got his reward. Rewarding him would have put Soviet military leaders in a difficult position.

[00:22:27] Not only did he go against military protocol, but the false alarm highlighted bugs within the Soviet missile detection system, and embarrassed the military bosses and the scientists who had designed it. 

[00:22:41] If Petrov was to be publicly recognised and honoured, they would have had to be punished.

[00:22:47] So instead of being celebrated and thanked, he was denied promotions, reassigned, and took early retirement.

[00:22:56] Indeed, the story was not even known outside the secretive world of the Soviet military until the late 1990s when Votintsev wrote about Petrov in his 1998 memoir.

[00:23:08] With time, however, people began to recognise what Petrov had done.

[00:23:14] In 2006 he received an award from the Association of World Citizens in New York, and in 2013 won the Dresden Peace Prize.

[00:23:24] The country he served never rewarded him for his actions, and he would retire with a small pension in a suburb outside Moscow, before passing away in May of 2017.

[00:23:37] He will go down in history, however, as the unlikely man who just might have saved the world. 

[00:23:45] OK then, that is it for today’s episode on Stanislav Petrov, a man who, with his calm, common sense approach, prevented the world from being plunged into nuclear war.

[00:23:58] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Petrov and his life before today, or this was the first time you’d heard anything about him, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:24:09] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:24:13] It’s one of those times when one unlikely person is required to make a huge decision with far-reaching consequences. Can you think of other examples?

[00:24:22] What do you think would’ve happened if Petrov hadn’t been working that morning in September 1983?

[00:24:29] How different would the world look now?

[00:24:32] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:35] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:48] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]