This Russian grandpa saved the life of a handful (about a few billion) people 26 years ago by not pressing a button. He was the officer on duty in the good old Soviet Union when the Russian missile warning system (that he had developed himself) indicated an American offensive move. He did not forward the message because he assumed it was a false alarm, and that way prevented World War III. The story leaked to mass media ten years later and ever since then he's been chased for interviews. (If you watch TV every now and then chances are you know the whole story.) A friend of ours recently worked with him on the production of a play so we asked Stanislaw himself how big a deal he thinks the whole thing is. Answer: Not big at all. He prevented a nuclear war? That kind of stuff happens.
Vice: Mr. Petrow, how often have people made you tell that story by now? Aren't you fed up with it yet?
Stanislaw Jewgrafowitsch Petrow: Yes, the questions are repeating themselves all the time. I change the details in my answers–otherwise it would bore me to death.
The US and European media stage you as a hero. What's your opinion about that?
I never saw myself as a hero. It was a coincidence I was on duty. The mass media contort the truth. I was there by chance–actually maybe not entirely by chance because there were intricacies. Everything else was plain timing.
The story was kept a secret for ten years. What were the consequences for you?
I was not fired after the incident. My wife was terminally ill, which I was not aware of at that time. Therefore I left by choice in 1994. It was 1993 when a big newspaper revealed the names of the involved officers and praised them. It was something even high-ranking military people did not know about. Until that day I went to festivities and when I was questioned about my decorations I had to keep silent. I wasn't allowed to refuse the topic–but I wasn't allowed to talk about it either.
What kind of thoughts crossed your mind in that moment of assessment? Were you aware what consequences your actions would have?
That's a difficult question. It's hard to understand, even for me. I’d been developing that missile warning system with a few other analysts and theoreticians since 1972 and knew its complexity. I just used my brain. It was a fifty-fifty decision.
Nevertheless you acted against your orders. What would the other officers have done in your place?
My colleagues could tell I wasn’t following the orders. Normally we strictly followed the calculations of the computers. But I knew the system was obsolete. I can’t say what they would have done, nobody knows. I appointed the instructions myself while creating the program, so I opposed my own orders. You know, machines are fearless, men aren't. That’s the reason why artificial intelligence doesn’t compare to human intelligence.
What would have been the aftermaths if you were wrong?
It could have gone wrong. The situation was perilous. Reagan gave speeches against the "Empire of Evil!" Wars in space became a possibility. The US praised laser weapons… But the Soviet Union knew the American developments in that sector did not compare to the Soviet ones. They just didn’t make this knowledge official. We, however, lagged behind when it came to aircraft carriers. There is an international treaty not to wage war in outer space...
An agreement not to wage war in outer space?
Yes. But if things ever get this heated, then big powers like the US will not consider a piece of paper. It's like in this story: the cat steals sausage from the kitchen. The cook is angry and scolds it, but the thief won’t care, as he listens and enjoys the sausage.
It's the same with North Korea.
My attitude towards this regime is hostile. There is a gang in power—oligarchs that suppress the people. Their nuclear tests were not successful up to this date as far as I know: both the Russians and the Americans agree they’re making up a farce. They try to fool capable scientists, but they’re nowhere near being able to actually build an atomic bomb. They just want to attract attention. People believe in their power. They don't know better and believe their pretenses. The US and Russia are "feeding" North Korea. They should stop doing that...
The US and Russia are "feeding" North Korea?
I strongly assume that. It's like a chained dog that’s really angry and needs a couple of treats so he won’t freak out. Russia has to keep them calm because they are neighbors. It's a dangerous country.
So good old nuclear disarmament is the only solution?
On a recent trip to the US I was shown a proposal for nuclear disarmament. The idea is nice but because of countries like North Korea or the countries in the Middle East neither Russia nor the US will ever sign such an agreement. Same thing goes for all the other small states longing for power and admission.
Things don't seem to have changed a lot since the end of the Cold War.
No. You just can't flush nuclear bombs down the toilet. And of course it makes you feel safer if you have the option to throw a little bomb on your neighbour–just in case.
If you don't see yourself as a hero–what else are you proud of having done in your life? What deed counts more than that one you did for all of us?
I have no idea. I never thought about that. That’s an unexpected twist! The media need the evil and the media need heroes to attract an audience. That’s the way things work.