AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This is a story about the power of your gut instincts. A Soviet military officer listened to his in 1983 and averted an accidental nuclear war. He became known as the man who saved the world. That's also the title of a movie about him. And this is all coming up because we only learned this week that he died back in May. His critical decision came at a very tense time. Weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean passenger plane, killing everyone onboard, including a U.S. congressman. NPR's Greg Myre tells us the rest.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: This is an amazing story. It's one of the real dramas of the Cold War nuclear age that most people have never heard of. And it's about a guy. His name is Stanislav Petrov. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Armed Forces. And he's working the overnight shift. So he's going in at midnight to this command center outside Moscow. His job is to monitor these Soviet satellites, which are out there, trying to detect an American missile launch. All of a sudden, his computer screen lights up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Russian).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Russian).
MYRE: And it says there's been a launch. But something in his gut is telling him it's not quite right. All his training has been that the Americans will launch a massive, all-out attack and that there'll probably be hundreds of missiles coming in. So this notion there's only five strikes him as odd. He sits, and he thinks for a minute. And he decides not to pass on that information immediately to his commanders but instead to first check, is there a computer problem? Are we getting some bad information?
But what if he's wrong? I mean, what if he's the guy that has information that the Soviet Union is under nuclear attack, and he doesn't pass it on? Finally, after 23 minutes, he says, I let out a sigh of relief because he had been trained that in 23 minutes, those American missiles could reach the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviets wanted to keep this quiet. They didn't want the world to know that their early detection system for a nuclear attack wasn't working.
So the story really stayed quiet for 15 years or so. One of Petrov's commanders finally wrote a book in the late 1990s, and so the information got out. But it was really another decade before he started being recognized internationally. Finally, a couple years ago, they made this docu-drama about him called "The Man Who Saved The World." And we do get to hear him speak in his own voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD")
STANISLAV PETROV: (As himself) I'm not a hero. I was just in the right place at the right time. I was just in the right place at the right time.
MYRE: And when he died on May 19, it didn't receive any fanfare. So finally, now four months after his death, Stanislav Petrov is being hailed as a hero, even if he didn't think he was one himself.
CHANG: NPR's Greg Myre remembering Stanislav Petrov, the man whose inaction averted a potential nuclear war. He was 77 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.