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Intelwars Nuclear War Russia Soviet Union USSR

37 years ago, the world as we know it almost ended. Here’s the story of the unheralded man who saved it.

Thirty-seven years ago Saturday, an incident occurred that very nearly ended life on earth as we know it. That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration; the events of Sept. 26, 1983, actually nearly caused nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union when a faulty Russian detection system erroneously declared that the United States had launched nuclear missiles. Only the gut feeling of a lone Russian military officer saved the world from probable nuclear holocaust.

Many of the details of the story are shrouded in mystery and dispute, as they often are in a paranoid communist government. Communist governments — particularly of the Russian variety — are loath to admit error, particularly of the kind that involves nuclear weapons. Thus, the official explanations and results of the Soviet investigation that followed must be taken with several healthy grains of salt.

As best as can be determined (or frankly, guessed), however, here is what happened on that fateful day in 1983. A freak alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds detected by a Russian satellite was interpreted as a nuclear missile launch and triggered an alarm inside a bunker near Moscow, where Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces was on duty. Petrov’s orders in this case were clear: He was to immediately notify Yuri Andropov, the paranoid leader of the Soviet Union.

Against the backdrop of world events as they were then unfolding, which included the recent Soviet downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 (which had a United States congressman on board) and NATO’s announced decision to move Pershing II missiles into Western Europe in order to increase first-strike capabilities against the USSR, such a notification would have resulted, almost without doubt, in the USSR launching an immediate retaliatory strike against the United States. United States doctrine, in turn, would have been to respond to such a launch with a retaliatory strike of its own. Who knows how many millions of lives would have been lost in the ensuing destruction?

Fortunately, however, Lt. Col. Petrov was not a man to follow instructions blindly. Years later, Petrov would explain that he did not follow orders and immediately notify superiors because “I had a funny feeling in my gut. I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” Petrov declared that the computer’s signal was likely a false alarm, based in part on the fact that the computer had detected the launch of only five ballistic missiles, and he believed that if the United States were really launching a pre-emptive attack, the launch would have been more substantial.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles,” Petrov thought to himself.

For several tense minutes, Petrov and his staff waited. The satellites had detected the launch early, but if it were genuine, the radar would soon also pick up the missiles. When the radar ultimately failed to show any actual incoming missiles, Petrov began to breathe easier and confidently assured his comrades in the bunker that the alarm was false and should not be reported up the chain of command.

Years later, Petrov would recall what he thought during those agonizing moments of waiting to see if radar would confirm that the missiles were real and not merely a computer glitch: “[W]e knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

It is difficult for people living in 2020 to understand how close the world came to a nuclear holocaust on that day. The Soviets’ radar capability was extremely limited at the time, and their satellite system lagged far behind the United States’. This meant that the Soviets knew that they would have at most minutes — not hours — in which to consider whether to launch a retaliatory strike. In the Soviet thinking of the time, there would not have been time to double- or triple-check the genuineness of the alarm; the missiles would have had to be launched immediately or not at all.

Additionally, the Soviet government under Andropov was almost unimaginably paranoid about Ronald Reagan and was convinced that he intended to launch a first strike against Russia.

With all of this added together, it is almost a certainty that if Petrov had followed orders, nuclear missiles would have been launched at the United States on that day.

Petrov, of course, was not exactly thanked by his government, which interrogated him relentlessly about the events of that night. Officials ultimately refused to reward him in any fashion, because to do so would have been to admit errors in their nuclear warning system, which would have embarrassed the Communist Party. He retired early from the army and lived in relative obscurity for years, caring for his wife, who later passed away due to cancer. He reportedly suffered a mental breakdown in the late 1990s and blamed the Soviet military for making him a “scapegoat.”

He passed away in 2017 due to pneumonia at the age of 77. As of 1997, he was so poor that he was forced to grow his own potatoes for food — apparently forgotten by the world he had most likely saved. Later in life, he was given some awards and recognition for his heroism, but none of these were in any way substantial.

Generally, when fictional stories are written about people who save the world, they are about people who take heroic actions. In Petrov’s case, his heroism consisted mostly of refusing to take action.

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Bernie Sanders communism Intelwars Socialism Soviet Union

Bombshell NYT report: Soviets targeted Bernie Sanders to help spread communist propaganda; Kremlin saw him as ally

It is no secret that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) admired the Soviet Union for decades, but a bombshell report by the New York Times shows that the “Evil Empire,” as dubbed by President Ronald Reagan, saw him as an ideological ally and mouthpiece for their propaganda.

Reporters with the Times tracked down a Soviet archive containing previously unseen documents from the 1980s while Sanders — as mayor of Burlington, Vermont — worked to establish a sister city relationship with Yaroslavl, Russia. According to the report, the Soviets utilized sister city partnerships as propaganda opportunities and “sought to leverage Sanders’ interest in their country to their advantage.”

Identifies as an ideological ally

The documents were located in the Yaroslavskaya Region State Archive in Yaroslavl in a file titled “documents about the development of friendly relations of the city of Yaroslavl with the city of Burlington in 1988.”

While the documents do not seem to indicate that Sanders knowingly contributed to the dissemination of Soviet propaganda, they do confirm that the Kremlin saw him as an ally.

“Nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist,” reporter Anton Troianovski wrote.

‘Very strange honeymoon’

The documents reviewed by the Times also show that Sanders aggressively courted the Soviets to establish a sister-city relationship with Burlington. During a May 1988 trip to the city of Yaroslavl with his wife and an American delegation (which Sanders subsequently described as a “very strange honeymoon”), the Soviets provided Sanders with a detailed itinerary that “was planned minute-by-minute” and included “tours of schools and theaters and virtually no breaks during the day.”

However, the trip itself was not sufficient to establish the sister-city relationship he sought with the Soviet Union, as the partnership had to be approved by high-ranking Soviet officials in Moscow and Burlington also had to host a reciprocal trip for a Soviet delegation.

The Times report suggests that in order to carry favor with the Kremlin, upon returning to the United States, Sanders spoke glowingly about his experience in the USSR and “ratcheted up his lobbying effort in private.”

“People there seemed reasonably happy and content,” Sanders told American reporters about Yaroslavl at the time. “I didn’t notice much deprivation.”

Driven by opposition to nuclear weapons

According to multiple people interviewed by the Times, Sanders’ interests in building relationships with the Soviet Union appear to have been largely driven by his strong opposition to a potential nuclear escalation with the Soviets.

When local residents and city council members grew frustrated with his focus on foreign policy as the mayor of a small city, Sanders quipped, “We cannot have a good police, fire or planning department if there is a nuclear war,” according to official minutes of a city meeting. “The enormous spending on the military by both countries strangles their local economies.”

In a statement to the Times, the Sanders campaign said it was “proud” of his efforts to build relationships with the Soviets. “Mayor Sanders was proud to join dozens of American cities in seeking to end the Cold War through a Sister Cities program that was encouraged by President Reagan himself,” a campaign spokesman said in a statement.

“The exchange between Burlington and Yaroslavl, which continues to this day, confirmed Sanders’s long held view: by meeting face to face, we can break down the barriers and stereotypes that exist between people and their governments.”

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