Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov 7 Sept 1939 – 19 May 2017
He probably saved my life (and yours?)
On September 1, 1983 the Soviet Union shot down a Boeing 747 passenger plane that had intruded into Soviet airspace. The Cold War was already hot, but this incident brought it to boiling point.
On September 26, 25 days after the downing of the 747, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early-warning system. Petrov’s job was to relay to the leadership in Moscow any information regarding missile launches from the United States. Only the Moscow leadership could authorize a launch of Soviet missiles. Believing the US was planning a first-strike attack the mood in the Kremlin was hair-trigger.
On that evening, September 26, the computerized warning systems at Petrov’s station flashed the information that the US had launched a missile. A few minutes later the warning radars indicated that five more missiles were on their way to Russia. Petrov could not believe what the screens were telling him. He disobeyed the rule book protocols and went against his training and didn’t pass on this information to Moscow. Disregarding the consequences, he acted on his own inner feeling. Instead of informing the Kremlin, he and his staff check and recheck the computerised systems. Only after an agonizing 30 minutes did it become clear that the system was malfunctioning. There were no incoming missiles.
Had Petrov followed the rule books and the protocols in which he was trained it seems almost certain that a dreadful nuclear holocaust would have been triggered. This would have engulfed the US, their NATO allies and the Soviet Union. It could have been the end of life on earth as we know it, my life, your life!
On this occasion, Petrov’s ‘common sense’ belief in humanity overrode his technical training. Years later his wife asked him what he did on that fateful night. “I did nothing” he replied. By that, he meant he did not send out the alarm which would have started a nuclear war. There is no indication that Petrov was a religious man, but I thank God for him.
I only learnt of Stanislav and these events, three weeks before this last Christmas (2019) via a BBC magazine article. He has been in my mind ever since. The photo above was taken when Stanislav was in retirement. He was never honoured in the Soviet Union because to do so would have been to place blame on the engineers and scientists who designed the early warning system he operated. He received a number of awards from governments and institutions in the West. In old age, he suffered a nervous breakdown and died in 2017.
These days if there is a lull in the conversation you can always ignite a lively response with two words, “Health and Safety’. School teachers, nurses, self-employed tradesmen, gardeners, social workers, youth group leaders they all have something to say about it – usually gripes. Preparing rules, regulations and instruction manuals for every aspect of life is now a growth industry. I know they aim to protect life and limb and save us from social and financial disaster. However, I cannot believe that they are designed to inhibit our core values and to stop us from thinking.
There were heaps of rules and regulations in Jesus day. He ignored most and broke dozens of them. He taught his followers and anyone who would listen to another world view. In doing this, he did not challenge the political rulers of his day and he accepted the Roman tax. It was as though he thought they were irrelevant. In terms of daily life, his disciples were to focus on other things. For instance, they were to love one another, forgive their enemies, see the whole human race as part of their family and learn from children. These teachings positioned him diametrically opposed to the religious rule-makers past and present. In fact, he was threatening their reason for being. He spoke against their precepts, their pious dress and did not even value their magnificent temple. Men who normally spent their days memorizing scripture became obsessed with murder.
Now we have the churches of many different kinds. All of which in theory is based on the teachings of Jesus and they all assert they are committed to worshipping Him. Does that mean we (the church-es) are perfectly in tune with his spirit – do we represent what he was about? Or have we codified him, summarized and systemized his teaching for our own convenience? Is it credible that in the West the followers of itinerant and homeless Jesus lead comfortable lives informed by occasional reference to scripture verses and reformed dogmas? The Bible, the Church, its teachings and ceremonies have become in effect our ‘health and safety’ handbook. But, the idea that Jesus proposed a neat rule for every life situation does not fit with the ministry of Jesus. He was not about rules and regulations. He was about being guided by love. His mission was to set people free. He set the thief on the cross free and set free the woman was taken in adultery and myriad others.
The aim of reading the Bible and Christian worship is to be open to the Spirit of Jesus so that he might set us free. This is different to academic study where the goal often is to summarise and to reduce concepts to formulas which can be memorised. The purpose of participation in Christian worship and private reading the gospels is different from attending a lecture or reading an instruction manual. It is to open ourselves to the love of God that we might be set free.
It is clear that handbooks and systemized rules can be helpful but they should not be the last word on life and death issues. For the Christian the person and teaching of Jesus must always be ground zero.
Today I am thinking of Stanislav and his decision on that fateful occasion to ignore the rules of his instruction manual. And somehow, by association, I am drawn to a lovely hymn from the Iona Community, ‘Catch the Bird of Heaven’.
Catch the Bird of Heaven
Lock Him in a cage of gold
Look again tomorrow
And He will be gone
Lock Him in religion
Gold and frankincense and myrrh
Carry to His prison
But He will be gone
All the things that man has made
Cannot hold Him anymore
Still the bird is flying as before
Temple made of marble
Beak and feather made of gold
Bell and book and candle
Cannot hold Him anymore
Still the bird is flying
Stan Stewart January 2020