Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces died in May and, in a sad testament to the world’s ingratitude, it was reported only this week.
Close readers will remember his story, which we’ve told several times. One evening in 1983, amid a war scare that had both sides on high alert, Colonel Petrov was running a Soviet early-warning system, watching for the American missiles that Moscow thought could come at any moment.
When his systems indicated exactly that, Colonel Petrov reported it as a false alarm, though all evidence suggested the attack was real. He knew that Soviet doctrine and the terrible logic of nuclear weapons would have compelled a massive Soviet launch before the American missiles could land, surely prompting an American retaliation in turn.
This act of courage and defiance — had Colonel Petrov been wrong, his act would have constituted treason — may have saved hundreds of millions of lives. Though his career had been dedicated to preparing for nuclear conflict, in the fateful moment he chose to avert it. […]
As Mr. Hoffman has written subsequently, Colonel Petrov was neither punished nor rewarded for his action. Like many Russian officers of his age, he lived modestly, put through hard times by his country’s 1990s economic collapse.
It is sadly fitting that Colonel Petrov, rather than made a hero for averting more deaths than perhaps any other person in history, was consigned to such obscurity that his death took months to become known.
The truth he exposed was perhaps too terrible for either side to confront: that their nuclear deadlock was built on the necessary lie that, if attacked, they would condemn millions more to die, though it would accomplish nothing. The truth, that we have created the circumstances of our own needless annihilation and put it on a hair trigger, was hidden away, as was Colonel Petrov.
— The Most Important Person You’ve Never Heard Of Has Died, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub for The New York Times (20/09/2017)