On Sept. 25, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the on-duty officer at the Serpukhov-15 military installation south of Moscow, a location so secret that very few Russians knew of its existence. In the middle of a forest, behind a concrete wall topped with barbed wire with armed guards flanking the entrance, the Soviets’ secret command station received and decoded information from the spy satellites. Officially, it was said to be an observatory, since there had to be some explanation for the large white monstrosity that poked its head up like some gigantic mushroom in the forest.
When a spy satellite detected the heat radiation from a missile booster rocket, the information was immediately transmitted to a gigantic computer known as M-10, which calculated the missile type, its orbit and speed, as well as the projected time and place of impact. Shortly after a missile was detected, the control center would visually register the missile on its monitors as a bright, funnel-shaped blip, which would become longer and longer before it disappeared behind the curvature of the Earth.
Petrov was vice-chief in the analysis department for war programming and did not actually work in the operations department. But on this specific day, the officer who was supposed to be on duty called in sick. This meant that Stanislav was stuck working a double shift monitoring the satellite activity at the secret military facility. It was just after midnight on Sept. 26, 1983, when, suddenly, something happened that was not supposed to happen. A siren began blasting with chilling clarity.
“I was on the second floor. Through the thick wall of safety glass, I looked down into the operation room. The back wall of the room was covered by a large map, where the American military bases could be seen,” recalls Petrov.
On top of the combat screens, a panel light started flashing the word “START” in blood-red letters. The big electronic clock showing: 00:15:00.
“I saw, that a missile had been fired, aimed at us. It was an adrenalin shock. I will never forget it,” said Petrov.
While the siren shrieked, Petrov watched as his men rose from their chairs, dumfounded, staring openmouthed at the nightmare unfolding on the combat screens in front of them.
“I imagined how the lid of the missile silo had been pushed aside and the missile’s booster rocket had sent it out into space. And I thought, ‘in forty minutes it will be here.”
Petrov’s men turned to him, their faces filled with confusion. Petrov himself was in a heightened state of shock, but he grabbed his microphone, still deaf from the sound of the siren, and ordered his men to get back to work and check the computer system and the satellites for errors.
With his superior unavailable, the decision of how to respond fell squarely on Petrov’s shoulders. The atmosphere in the bunker was chaotic, but Stanislav, who was a trained engineer, had all of his men analyzing the data carefully before making a decision. There was no time to waste, and Petrov knew it. Soon, reports started to come in. His men had checked the functioning of all military programs. They showed no errors. At that point it was confirmed: The system has detected an incoming rocket.
Petrov looked at the warning sign still flashing: “START.” Clock running. The system was confirming the attack, but somehow Petrov was in doubt. Thoughts stormed his mind. He had a gut feeling that something was wrong, despite what the system and his men were telling him. He reasoned that if the U.S. did launch a nuclear attack, they would not be launching just one missile. It made no sense. You don’t start WWIII with just one missile. There had to be more than one missile.
“I gave the Americans the benefit of the doubt. I made my final decision… and then I grabbed the telephone and reported a false alarm to the SPRN command station.”
But just as Petrov was about to hang up, the siren blasted again. Another missile had been detected. And then another. And another. In all, the firing of five intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles was recorded. Now it was up to Petrov to make his final decision—a decision that would alter the course of human history.
The incident occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The paranoid military and political Soviet leadership could easily convince themselves that the Americans were considering “a preventive attack.”
Ronald Reagan had announced his Star Wars project that year—a plan to defend the U.S. against incoming missiles—and had called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” NATO was planning to place Pershing-II missiles in West Germany aimed at the Soviet Union.
On Sept. 1, the Soviet jets had shot down a South Korean passenger plane, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL-007), that had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald. KAL-007 became the catalyst for the most nerve-wracking time in modern history—a time when the U.S. and the USSR teetered on the brink of nuclear war.
President Reagan called the shooting down of KAL-007 “barbarism,” saying it was “a crime against humanity that must never be forgotten.” Yuri Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, believed the U.S. was planning a first strike and the KGB sent a flash message to all of its agents telling them “to prepare for a possible nuclear war.”
BRUCE BLAIR, expert on Cold War nuclear strategies, says: “The false alarm that happened on Petrov's watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations. The Soviets saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President (Ronald Reagan) capable of ordering a first strike."
'The Man Who Saved the World' is an epic tale of a man, who, by pure happenstance, had to make a decision that could have changed our world forever. A successful lieutenant colonel who had been chosen to handle such a test. A man of the system who had learned to disconnect all human emotions and simply follow protocol. As Stanislav Petrov says himself, “No sane man will ever be able to make such a tremendous decision to decide whether we shall destroy our planet or not. That’s why we had to stick to protocol. Everything was about protocol.”
In spite of this, on Sept. 26, 1983, Petrov chose to go against protocol when he had to inform his superiors about an alleged U.S. nuclear missile attack that the Soviet surveillance system kept confirming. Instead of protocol, Petrov followed his intuition. Despite years of training to do otherwise, chose with his heart.
As a result of his decision, Petrov’s life turned into a sort of Greek tragedy. He lost everything: his job, his wife and his dignity. Today Petrov is man who lives at the bottom of a vodka bottle, weighed down by bitterness and anger— against the world, against the military and especially against his own mother. After saving the world, his world collapsed around him.
Or as Kevin Costner put it, when he met Petrov in the U.S., “How do we fix all this? How do we make it safe?”
Petrov’s solution seems simple. If we want to secure world peace, we have to let go of all our past mistakes and start focusing on forgiveness instead. The past is a ghost, and all we ever have is now. We have to reach out and start all over. “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.”
But that is easier said than done. When Petrov is faced with his own dilemma – to forget the past and forgive his mother’s wrongdoings – he simply cannot. The pain is too strong.
The story begins in present time. Petrov, late 60s, is living a solitary life fuelled by alcohol in a filthy apartment. How did he get here? What went wrong? Then it cuts to Sept. 1983, when Petrov, aged 44, was at his prime. Not as a flashback, but following him in present time. Hereby erasing the boundaries between fiction and documentary.
I want the fiction to feel credible and contemporary. I cannot film the real-time reality of 1983, since it no longer exists. But I can approach the fragments of memory, which are still present in the minds of the people who experienced it.
The first part of the incident is told in an epic and visual language—using steady framings—to underscore Petrov’s elaborate and well-planned order. When the alarm suddenly goes off, the film underscores the chaos experienced by Petrov and his men, and the viewer is left with wild dynamics and intense close-ups combined with psychological points of view.
I have filmed these scenes in long, uninterrupted takes in order to capture the growing panic as the minutes pass and doomsday moves closer. The dynamics between the separate scenes have been very important to me. The photographers were told to follow their intuition, so the camera-reactions would be one step behind the actor’s reactions, always on the lookout for what is going to happen next. A documentary method of capturing fictionalized reality.
The same type of dynamics—between narrative and documentary—characterized my work with Petrov. I wanted to peel off the many layers of armor that he has created to protect himself. I wanted to reach into his emotional core. By putting Petrov under maximum pressure, in situations where he didn’t feel safe, I tried to eliminate his sense of self-control, just as was the case in 1983 when he felt maximum pressure and acted out as a hero of humanity instead of a pre-programmed soldier. And true magic occurred when we finally succeeded in breaking down his harsh outer façade and found some of the reasons why everything went wrong for “the man who saved the world.”
A man who undoubtedly happened to be “at the right place at the right time,” but also a man who is still furious for being put there. Only because his mother forced him to join the army at age 17, Petrov happened to be on duty that night. And only because he made that crucial decision, he never became a general. And when his wife died of cancer, his own mother didn’t even attend the funeral.
Petrov does not want to appear bitter or angry, but this is how he is at the beginning of the film. He is still trapped in the past. Not until the end of the film, after a long soul-searching journey across the U.S., is Petrov finally able to realize that we can’t change the past, but we can change the future.
'The Man Who Saved the World' is a film, which breaks boundaries. Not as a mere provocation—or to start a debate about form and method—but simply because the story and the process wanted it this way. The Man Who Saved the World is neither a feature film nor a documentary. It has its own universe and style. It is a film from the heart. It is a film about people, for people. It is my truth about “the man who saved the world.”
- Peter Anthony, director
Stanislav Petrov (b. Sept. 9, 1939) was born in Odessa, Ukraine. With a skyrocketing military career bringing him to almost every corner of the former Soviet Union, Petrov ended up as lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces at age 43.
On Sept. 26, 1983, Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported five nuclear missiles being launched from the United States Petrov judged the report to be a false alarm, and his decision is credited with having prevented an erroneous retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in largescale nuclear war. Investigation later confirmed that the satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned.
In Jan. 2006, Petrov traveled to the United States, where he was honored with a special World Citizen Award at the United Nations in New York City,"“in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe." For Petrov’s actions in averting a nuclear war, he was also awarded the Dresden Prize on Feb. 17, 2013, in Dresden, Germany. The award included $32,000. On Feb. 24, 2012, he was honored with the 2011 German Media Award, presented to him at a ceremony in Baden-Baden.
Today, Petrov is a retired widower living by himself in a two-bedroom apartment in a Moscow suburb.
“I’m not a hero. I was just at the right place at the right time.”
- Stanislav Petrov