Russian Trinity: Icons for Our Times

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov
Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov
Andrei Sakharov

The nearly 50-year Cold War between the East (the Soviet Union and its satellite countries) and the West (the United States, Great Britain, France, other European countries) marked most of the second half of the 20th century. This time was characterized by tensions between the two blocs and a growing nuclear arms race.

The United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, first used in Japan at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union followed suit in building nuclear weapons, as did other countries. At their peak during the Cold War, the United States had 32,000 nuclear weapons and the USSR had 45,000. The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked a period of moving toward disarmament, with each bloc having 5,000 weapons by 2005.

There were some events during this period when the world was on the verge of nuclear war: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and in 1983, in what became known as the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. The stories of the heroes who prevented nuclear destruction in these events, Vasili Arkhipov in Cuba and Stanislav Petrov in 1983, are told below.

Another hero is Andrei Sakharov, the inventor of the Soviet atomic bomb and later a dissident and activist against nuclear weapons. His story is also below.

Vasili Arkhipov

During the Cuban missile crisis standoff, President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even.”

In addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had sent 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba. The local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow.

The US air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the crisis would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops. If it occurred, that war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

On October 27, 1962, while in international waters, the US Navy tracked and dropped practice depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface. Unknown to the Americans, the submarine was armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo.

The submarine had not been in contact with Moscow for days. When it went deep to avoid US Navy detection, it could no longer monitor radio communication. It did not know whether or not war had broken out. The captain, Valentin Savitsky, thought war may have started and wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo.

Three Soviet officers on the submarine had to agree in order to launch an attack: Captain Savitsky, second in command Deputy Commander Vasili Arkipov, who was equal in rank to Savitsky, and Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov.

Captain Savitsky was exhausted and became furious. He ordered the nuclear torpedo to be made combat ready. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky instead to surface the submarine and await communication from Moscow. It surfaced among US ships and then headed home.

Messages sent from the US Navy never reached the Soviet submarine in the depths. Moscow claims it did not receive any messages either.

During a 2002 conference about the crisis 50 years later, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were very strained on September 23, 1983. President Reagan had denounced the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and was overseeing substantial increases in the military budget. The US Navy conducted its largest-ever military exercise in the Pacific, and American airplanes invaded Soviet airspace over the Kurile Islands.

Soviet military shot down a South Korean passenger jet that had strayed into Soviet airspace that fall, killing all on board. President Reagan used the incident to gather support for moving nuclear missiles into Europe which were capable of hitting targets inside the Soviet Union.

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was in bad health and knew that they were losing the race in military technology. He was urged by Soviet hard-liners who were growing more convinced that the US might be preparing a nuclear first strike against them, and was planning a response. President Reagan's talk and US military exercises added to their war fears.

Early on September 26, 1983, the Soviet early warning system, monitoring satellites and ground stations designed to spot ballistic missile launches, reported that the US had fired a missile at the Soviet Union. The system reported four more launches soon after.

When the alarm sounded, Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was responsible for reacting to the report that American nuclear missiles were heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov did not have launch control of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal but he was the first responder. Because of the short time available in the event of a surprise attack, his word probably would have been accepted by Soviet leaders.

Petrov considered the detection a computer error because he believed that a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States would likely involve hundreds missile launches in order to disable a Soviet counterattack.

In addition, their early warning system was less than a year old, its reliability had been questioned before, and ground radar had failed to confirm the alerts even after several minutes of the alarm.

It turned out that the early warning system had mistakenly detected sunlight reflecting off clouds as missile launches. These sightings were designed to be filtered out by the system’s computer, but the parameters were not mapped out correctly. Petrov's decision was confirmed later by ground-based monitoring systems.

Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies said the American–Soviet relationship “had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system...was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents... I think that this is the closest our country has come to accidental nuclear war.”

Technical Information
Panels are 8"x8" archival textured gesso board bound with black leather straps; mixed-media acrylic ink, paint, and modeling paste. Custom presentation and storage flaps included.

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