A couple of months ago I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I co-starred in a date-scene film montage.
My acting partner was a kindly Russian pensioner named Stanislav Petrov, better known as “The Man Who Saved the World.” In 1983, Petrov bravely disregarded Russian military protocol during a false alarm and very likely prevented World War III. But more about that in a minute.
Stanislav Petrov: He saved the world, and for his effort was rewarded with a vacuum cleaner.
I met Petrov and a Russian tv news crew on a clear September afternoon at the fountain in Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin walls. After microphones were clipped to our lapels, Petrov and I strolled arm-in-arm around the square, chatting about his military career and the night that made him famous. True to the genre, the final edit of the montage includes me buying Petrov a staged vanilla ice cream cone.
The occasion of our meeting was the 24th anniversary of a historic nightshift Petrov worked at the Serpukhov missile command center. What happened was this: half past midnight on September 26, 1983, the radar screen in the Serpukhov bunker showed several missile launches on U.S. territory. Petrov was the ranking officer on site. The protocol that he himself had authored dictated that he inform his superiors immediately. They, in turn, would have contacted the ailing, paranoid, and hawkish Soviet premiere at the time, Yuri Andropov.
With his computer screens beeping havoc, Petrov was forced to think fast. Under unimaginable pressure, he reasoned that because of the small number of launches, the alarm was likely false. “In a real first-strike, they would have hit us with hundreds of missiles,” he said. And so he sat tight and never kicked the alert up the chain of command.
It was the right call. It turned out the alarm was the result of sunlight reflecting off low-altitude clouds above several U.S. missile silos. A satellite misread.
When the story of Petrov’s (in)action came out in 1998, the world media descended on him from every direction, crowning him the “Man Who Saved the World.” A documentary film was made about the incident. There was talk of a Nobel Prize. The Association of World Citizens flew him to San Francisco and gave him a “World Citizen Award” and a $1,000 check. (Petrov bought a vacuum cleaner with the money, which in a delicious detail turned out to be faulty.)
When the producer of the Russian news program called and asked me to appear in the anniversary segment, I said where and when. Who wouldn’t want to meet the Man Who Saved the World? After I agreed to do the show, he began to brief me on the state of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time of Petrov’s fateful decision. I politely cut him off and told him I didn’t need any background. I was nine years old in 1983 and remember it all too well. For me and every other kid on my block, 1983 was an annus scared shitlessicis; the culture more drenched in nuclear dread than at any time since October 1962.
The Great Fear of 1983 is the most vivid memory of my childhood. If I shut my eyes, I can still see Reagan administration officials on the old McNiel/Lehrer Report, which my family often watched during dinner, talking about “winnable” nuclear war—and my parents going pale. The weekly magazines had mushroom clouds on their covers. Freeze activists came to our Boston door. I tried to block out the news, but it was impossible. There was no avoiding the test-patterns on the airwaves or the suddenly ominous black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs dotting my public school hallways. Compounding things, that summer I purchased a collection of old Mad magazines from the 1950s and early-1960s, which dumped an earlier wave of panic onto the one I was living through.