The Red Button (Czerwony Guzik)

THE RED BUTTON (CZERWONY GUZIK)
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About Film

The Red Button was nominated by the Jury of the Uranium Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro for the Yellow Oscar 2012, for the best feature film of the festival.

The Red Button is a 52-minute documentary film that tells the dramatic story of Stanislav Petrov, the Russian officer who, in 1983, saved the world from atomic war.

During the early ‘80s, the Russian leader was Jurij Andropov, the most right-wing Soviet leader since Stalin. A known hardliner, Andropov was very wary of US activity.

It was an intense period of time in the relationship between the United States and Russia. Tensions were running high between the two superpowers, and the atmosphere was suspicious because of recent incidents. On September 5th, a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers, many of whom were American, had been shot down over Soviet territory because the Russians believed it was a spy mission. The action led Reagan to label Russia an “evil empire.” Soon after, the KGB communicated to the western operatives to prepare for possible nuclear war. It is now thought that throughout 1983, the Kremlin assumed that the US and its allies were planning a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.

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So it was in this tense environment that Stanislav Petrov worked deep inside Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker, monitoring early warning satellites. On September 26, 1983, Pietrow was in charge of monitoring American missiles that could potentially be sent to Russia to start a nuclear war. It was not his normal duty; he was to man the post twice a month just to keep his skills from getting rusty.

Shortly after midnight, Petrov noticed a missile on his screen. Thinking it was a possible error, he nervously ignored it and waited for any other indications of war. Several minutes later, things became much more serious: four more missiles appeared and a flashing red warning sign began asking him to confirm an incoming attack. By pressing the red button, Petrov would have sent the information up the chain of command to Jurij Votincev, the Commander in Chief of the Russian missile defense, and then to Jurij Andropov who was in charge of the new “nuclear suitcase” and who would have undoubtedly called for a counterattack.
Petrov knew he only had about fifteen minutes to decide what he would do before the missiles would reach the Soviet Union. If he didn’t pass the information along, Petrov would be ignoring orders and taking responsibility into his own hands. The protocol, which Petrov had written himself, clearly indicated that the correct course of action would be to inform the Commander in Chief. 120 panicked military officers and engineers sat behind him, looking at the screen and waiting for his decision. “Everyone jumped from their seats looking at me,” says Petrov. “What could I do? There was a procedure that I had written myself.” The future of the world was in the 44-year-old Russian officer’s hands as he wrestled with the decision of whether or not to use Russia’s atomic button. In a bold move, however, Petrov decided against it, blaming the signals on faulty equipment instead of imperialistic aggression. At the time, he was not sure he had made the right choice.
Fortunately for all of us, Petrov made the correct decision. His reasoning was that if the Americans were going to start an atomic war, they would have sent hundreds of missiles, not just five.
Although Petrov had effectively saved the world from atomic war, he was not rewarded for his decision by the Russian army. Instead, he was reprimanded for not filling out the log books on that day, and a year later he was given an option to retire.

When the incident was finally declassified in 1998, many members of world organizations claimed that Petrov was a hero, and some thought that he deserved a Nobel Prize. As a result of the publicity, he was rewarded by the The Association of World Citizens based in San Francisco with $1000 and given a plaque: ‘The World Citizen Award.’

Today, Petrov lives in a small village near Moscow in relative anonymity, surviving only on a tiny pension of $200 a month. He gave most of his reward money to his grandchildren and spent the rest on a vacuum cleaner, an item he had always dreamed of, which then turned out to be faulty.
While Petrov’s incident might sound extraordinary, the world has actually survived at least four false alerts for nuclear war in the past 20 years. Fortunately, in three of the four cases, reliable space-based sensors assured leaders that they were safe, even though their other systems falsely indicated a nuclear attack. Many world leaders believe, therefore, that such incidents demonstrate the need for both the US and Russia to have adequate space-based sensors in order to avoid a false response.

Even with such sensors in place, however, accidents are inevitable. In Petrov’s case, it was actually a relatively new Soviet satellite system that falsely indicated that nuclear annihilation was imminent. Shortly after midnight, the sun, the monitoring satellite system, and the U.S. missile fields all lined up in such a way as to maximize the sunlight reflected from high-altitude clouds. This gave the appearance, to Petrov, that several missiles had been launched from the U.S. continental missile fields. Although his suspicious superiors had repeatedly told Petrov that the United States would launch a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet forces, he decided not to pass the alert about the five missiles to higher authorities, saying, “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

Although Petrov’s action was the right one at the time, according to Dr. Bruce Blair of the US Center for Defense in Washington DC, his logic was not necessarily correct because one of the US’s plans was to launch just a few missiles to confuse the enemy.
Such a close call, however, illustrates the fact that there is still considerable room for human and technical error in systems, which keeps thousands of nuclear weapons on high-trigger alert and poised for rapid firing. To make things worse, the constellation of Russian early-warning satellites has been allowed to deteriorate significantly since 1995 because of insufficient maintenance funding. What is even more important, as stated by Bruce Blair “there is an urgent need to stand down these dangerous missiles and take them off alert in order to prevent a nuclear war from starting by mistake or by unauthorized action.”

The Red Button reviews Petrov’s role in the autumn equinox nuclear scare, discusses the repercussions of the event, and analyzes possible ways to prevent similar mistakes. By telling the story of this unsung hero’s life, this documentary will bring important issues about international security to light. Although this film is international in its perspective, the subject matter is very close to American audiences. The subject matter confronts the most vital and important themes for current security issues – for America as well as the rest of the world.

Planete +

Historia rosyjskiego podpulkownika, który uchronil swiat przed globalna wojna nuklearna.

W 1983 roku nastapila eskalacja zimnej wojny. KGB podejrzewalo, ze Stany Zjednoczone moga przeprowadzic atak nuklearny na Zwiazek Radziecki. 26 wrzesnia 1983 Stanislaw Pietrow mial dyzur w centrum dowodzenia Sierpuchowo-15 znajdujacym sie nieopodal Moskwy. Do jego obowiazków nalezalo monitorowanie systemu wczesnego ostrzegania, aby w momencie ataku Zwiazek Radziecki mógl od razu na niego odpowiedziec. Kilka minut po pólnocy Pietrow odebral sygnal, ze Stany Zjednoczone wystrzelily piec rakiet w kierunku ZSRR. Podpulkownikowi od poczatku wydawalo sie, ze to blad systemu. Nie chcac doprowadzic do konfliktu, zdecydowal sie nie alarmowac przelozonych. Jak sie okazalo, jego decyzja byla sluszna, gdyz atak rakietowy byl bledem systemów. Do tej pory wielu ekspertów uwaza, ze zachowanie Stanislawa Pietrowa pozwolilo uniknac globalnej wojny nuklearnej. Poniewaz podpulkownik nie wykonal rozkazu, zostal odsuniety od sluzby wojskowej.

Credits

Directed by:
Ewa Pieta
Miroslaw Grubek

Script:
Ewa Pieta

Produced by:
Miroslaw Grubek & Slawomir Grunberg

Director of Photography:
Slawomir Grunberg

Music:
Michal Lorenc

Edited by:
Miroslaw Grubek

Off line Editor:
Malgorzata Lukomska

On-line Editor:
Jan Mikolaj Mironowicz, PSM

Sound:
Bartlomiej Wozniak

Co-produced by:
LOGTV, Ltd & MG Production

Co-financed by:
Polish Film Institute. Dir. Agnieszka Odorowicz

Screenings and Awards

SCREENINGS

• International Uranium Film Festival, New York City, February 14, 2014

• (Opening night), UNAFF International Film Festival, Palo Alto, California, October 18, 2012 (Link)

• 2nd International Uranium Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2012 (Link)

• (Premiere) Filmambiente, International Environmental Film Festival, Rio de Janerio, Brazill, November 2011 (Link)

AWARDS

• The Red Button was nominated by the Jury of the Uranium Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro for the Yellow Oscar 2012, for the best feature film of the festival.

Broadcast History

• Canal Plus, Poland
Number 5 in the Canal Plus ranking!, May 2014

• ETB-BASQUE, SPAIN PUBLIC TV, September 2013

Reviews and Reactions

The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

By Megan Garber
The Atlantic
Sep 26 2013 (Link)

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early ’80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

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Petrov, however, had a hunch — “a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later recall — that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense: The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive — much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles — even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn’t fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as “raw.”

But what would you do? You’re alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call.

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite’s detection to his superiors — but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, “he hoped to hell he was right.”

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted.

As Petrov, now retired and living in a town near Moscow, puts it of his decision: “That was my job. But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

Thirty years later, there are lingering questions about the specific events of September 26, 1983. Was it really up to Petrov, the single man, to make the call? Weren’t there other failsafes that would allow for malfunctioning technology? Wouldn’t other cool heads, finally, have prevailed? Petrov, for his part, emphasizes the ambiguity of the situation, saying after the incident that he was never convinced the alarm was erroneous. (The odds of his getting it right, he now figures, were pretty much 50-50.)

One thing that seems clear, however, is that the world carried on into September 27, 1983 in some part because Stanislav Petrov decided to trust himself over malfunctioning machines. And that may have made, in a very broad and cosmic sense, all the difference. Petrov’s colleagues were professional soldiers with purely military training; they would, being trained to follow instructions at all costs, likely have reported a missile strike had they been on shift at the time. Petrov, on the other hand, trusted his own intelligence, his own instincts, his own gut. He made the brave decision to do nothing.

And we’re here to read about him because of it.