The Red Button (Czerwony Guzik)

Poland/USA, 2011, 52 min, Russian, English subtitles
Production: Miroslaw Grubek, Slawomir Grunberg
Yellow Oscar Nomination

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.

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.