History remembers the winners and losers of war but rarely recognises the people who prevent it.

Few people have heard of Stanislav Petrov, but we may all owe him our very existence.

As a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, he averted nuclear war with the United States. 

Incoming missiles

It was yet 1am on September 26, 1983. Petrov, 44 at the time, was in a military bunker near Moscow, monitoring a satellite system for alerts of a US nuclear attack.

The computer system at the base reported a single missile launch. It then indicated that the US had launched five nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union.

Although, in his own words, the alarms were "loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave", Petrov made the decision to ignore the warning signs. He believed that the missile detection system had failed and that it was a false alarm.

But how did he come to that conclusion?

Petrov’s call flew in the face of reason and national pride amidst increasing tension between the two countries.

It was the height of the Cold War. In March of that year US president Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” when unveiling his ‘Star Wars’ missile defence system , and earlier in September a Soviet military aircraft had shot down a Korean passenger airliner flying from New York to Seoul, killing all 269 passengers on board including US Congressman Larry McDonald.

David Holloway, a professor at Stanford University specialising in the Soviet Union, told BT.com that the month marked a high point in tensions between the US and the USSR.

“September 1983 was an extremely tense year in the Cold War, probably the worst it had been since the Cuban missile crisis.”

Logic over rhetoric

Petrov’s stance seems ever more startling given the geopolitical tensions of that time.

“People like Petrov doing that job had to go through rigorous training and simulations,” Holloway explained.

“He had been taught that if the US launched a surprise attack, it wouldn’t be just five missiles, it would be 500.”

A lack of visual confirmation also convinced the Soviet officer - a scientist by trade - that the warning didn’t merit a response.

Petrov’s judgement proved correct.  The false alarm was triggered by a technical failure in space, where Soviet satellites had interpreted sunlight reflected from clouds as rockets fired from a US base. A lowly Soviet officer had single-handedly defused a potentially disastrous episode of modern history.

The incident only became public information in 1998 when a former commander of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, Yuri Votintsev, published his memoirs.

Votintsev disclosed just how close the world had come to a nuclear war, and credited Petrov with having averted a crisis through shrewd decision-making.

Petrov became known as “the man who saved the world”. He has since won humanitarian awards such as the UN’s World Citizen Award.

He received the German Media Prize in 2011, placing him in the same company as previous winners Nelson Mandela, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama.

Stanislav Petrov

Global hero?

But Professor Holloway holds back from proclaiming Petrov as a world saviour.

“Petrov himself could not have pressed the button to launch retaliatory strikes. But he took the decision to not pass on the alert. The issue was if he should have passed on that information,” he explained.

Russia released a statement through the UN in January 2006 on the very day that Petrov received his World Citizen Award.

It concurs with Holloway’s views as it states that a nuclear war would not have started even if one officer had reported a signal about an incoming nuclear missile. “A confirmation is necessary from several systems,” it  noted.

But Petrov’s story is still compelling. Danish director Peter Anthony has finished making a feature-length documentary on Petrov entitled, naturally, The Man Who Saved The World. The film talks to the man himself and recreates moments from the day in question.

Anthony thinks the bigger story is Petrov taking an individual stance.

He told this website: “Stanislav was brought through a system where you’re not supposed to think, where you’re supposed to do what you’re told. But he took a very human decision."

The film has been in production for seven years and Anthony hopes to screen it at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014.

Petrov has no illusions of self-importance either, according to the director.

“He thinks of himself as a person who did his job well – because he’s a soldier," said Anthony. "He’s humble but he also knows he had an important task.”

The director says Petrov’s story is one of human triumph, regardless of whether a nuclear war could have broken out - an example of independent thinking within a regime that bred similitude.

For Anthony, Petrov is “a hero of humanity”.

It's hard not to agree.