Monday, February 16, 2009


Did you ever ask yourself...
Can one person change the world?

Can one person save the world?
The answer may surprise you...

-The story of Stanislav Petrov

If you are a human, and if you are living on Planet Earth, then you owe your life to someone you don’t even know. Yes, someone you have never met saved your life. If fact, he saved all our lives. Actually, he saved our whole planet and all life as we know it.

The answer is yes, one person can change the world. One person can save the world. In fact, one person you have never heard of did save the world. No, he is not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; he doesn’t wear a mask or a cape and he has never appeared in a comic book or a film. Yet he is a superhero.

If you are not older than thirty, you won’t even know or remember the reason why the world had to be saved. If you are younger than 25, you will have to ask your parents or grandparents about what the world was like from the 1940s to the 1990s during the cold war. The term ”cold war” may seems a little innocuous and perhaps odd today, but for those who lived through it, the term conjures a feeling of dread, a chill or sensation in their solar plexus. Anyone who grew up during that time lived with a sense of dread and fear and anxiety. The cold war describes a time of tension, conflict, competition between two dominant world philosophies—Communism and Capitalism. It was a time of espionage, propaganda, posturing, weapons of mass destruction arms buildup, nuclear arsenals and a cloud of suspicion, distrust and imminent doom.

The world was divided and aligned with the superpowers—The United States and the Soviet Union. Each side wanted to export their philosophy and way of life—communism or democracy. Conflicts over these two ways of being in the world led to the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin wall, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet War in Afghanistan and multiple decades of holding humanity hostage in a perpetual state of fear and a resignation to the inevitability of World War III—and the end of civilization.

The world came close to annihilation a few times in the five decades that the cold war lasted. The Cuban Missile Crisis during President Kennedy’s Administration, was one such well known time when the world was on the brink of war. But there is another time that very few people know about. There was a critical moment when the actions of one man saved the world from nuclear war. On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty in a bunker near Moscow when the early detection system alarm sounded indicating incoming missiles. Petrov’s job was to alert his supervisors to any impending nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

The protocols at that time were to immediately launch a counterattack to implement mutually assured destruction of both countries. The incident could not have come at a worse time. The Soviet Union had just weeks earlier shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 killing all 269 passengers on board, simply for flying into Soviet airspace. A U.S. Congressman had been aboard that flight. NATO was gearing up for able Archer 83, a military doomsday exercise interpreted as a first strike scenario by the Soviet KGB and military and Andropov, the Soviet Premier had an exaggerated distrust of America, convinced the U.S. would launch a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union. His mind, and the Soviet mindset at that time was perpetually braced for it—on hair trigger alert.

Petrov delayed his reporting because the system indicated only one incoming missile. He mentally dismissed it as a systems error. But then the system then read 4 more incoming missiles. The Soviet protocol was to launch upon threat not necessarily with confirmation of a strike. Petrov reasoned that America, if launching a first strike scenario, would launch an all out strike from multiple bases, not 5 missiles from a single site. Again he delayed reporting. The Soviet radar could not detect something beyond the horizon and the delay would mean if it were a real strike, the Soviet response time would be limited. He waited for ground radar confirmation which never came. As it turns out, the detection was of an unusual alignment of sunlight on high altitude clouds and the elliptical orbits of the detection satellites.

Petrov was both praised and demonized by his superiors. Subsequently dismissed from his post, he took early retirement after suffering a “nervous breakdown.” He lives now in Russia as a common pensioner. A modern hero, Petrov saved the world as that moment in history on his watch was probably the closest the world ever came to nuclear war and potential annihilation. A film about his life and this incredible story, The Red Button  was released in 2012 and was nominated by the Jury of the Uranium Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro for the Yellow Oscar award to best feature film of the festival. 

The Red Button tells the dramatic story of Stanislaw Petrov, the Russian officer who, in 1983, saved the world from atomic war. On September 26th, 1983, Stanislaw Petrov was in charge of monitoring American missiles that could potentially be sent to Russia to start a nuclear war. Shortly after midnight, Petrov noticed a missile on his screen. Several minutes later, things became much more serious: four more missiles appeared and a red warning sign “Missile Attack” began to flash. 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. Fortunately for all of us, Petrov made the correct decision. Although Petrov had effectively saved the world from atomic war, he was reprimanded for not filling out the logbooks on that day, and a year later he was given an option to retire. Today, Petrov lives in a small town near Moscow in relative anonymity, surviving only on a tiny pension of $200 a month.
Film Producer:
Slawomir Gr├╝nberg directed and produced over forty television documentaries focusing on critical social, political, and environmental issues. From Chechnya to Chernobyl received a Golden Cine Award. Shtetl, the epic film that Slawomir photographed and served as second unit producer was awarded the Silver Baton for Excellence in Radio/TV Journalism by Dupont- Columbia University, and the Grand Prix at the Cinema du Reel Film Festival. The most recent of Gr├╝nberg’s films are dealing with LGTB&Q community in Poland: Trans-Action and Coming Out Polish Style. Several others films are on the Holocaust theme: The Peretzniks, In the Name of Their Mothers: The Story of Irena Sendler by Mary Skinner, Paint What You Remember, The Legacy of Jedwabne and Saved by Deportation. Portraits of Emotion, a film about autism, received an Expression Award at Brazil’s Disability Film Festival and Grand Prix at the Belgrade International Film Festival. His director of photography credits include, among others, Legacy, which received an Academy Award Nomination for the best documentary feature and Sister Rose’s Passion, which received an Academy Award Nomination for the best documentary short. Slawomir has also been a contributing director of photography and editor for the PBS series: Frontline, AIDS Quarterly, American Masters, NOVA, Health Quarterly, Inside Gorbachev's USSR with Hedrick Smith and People's Century as well as Lifetime and HBO.

Discussion Questions:

Can one person change the world? Can one person save the world? Can the world be saved by employing a reasonable and rational state of mind? Can the human race be saved from its own destructive devices? Is there such a thing as the right person being in the right place at the right time? Is there a man for the season? A woman for the season? Does a person have a calling? A life mission? A destiny? Could you save the world by your actions? Do you have a mission? A destiny? What do you think? Given your logical conclusions, what are you doing to contribute? Or as the poet Mary Oliver asks, "what will you do with your one wild and precious life?" Or: What can you do on your watch?

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A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...