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THE MYSTICISM OF PACIFISM: the man who prevented nuclear war

THE MYSTICISM OF PACIFISM: the man who prevented nuclear war
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Photo by Thomas Leuthard / flickr.com

 

There are mystical dates in human history. Perhaps one such date is 1982. It was the year of the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and many people perceived this event symbolically: as the end of the era of stagnation. But at the same time, there was also a premonition of some global changes that were about to come and change the whole world.

In the USSR, in the United States, and in many other countries, millions of people suddenly, without any conspiracy, wanted to live differently. They were tired of the endless nuclear race and the Cold War. The movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the peaceful coexistence of the two systems had its heroes.

Many of them, such as academician Andrei Sakharov, for example, are well known to everyone. But we would like to tell you about lesser-known but no less important personalities, without whom the pacifist movement would not have reached its peak in 1982.

 

WHAT DO PACIFISM, SEX, AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS HAVE IN COMMON?

 

For many people, the phrase «We don’t have sex!» is a memorable one, which was uttered on one of the US — USSR teleconferences that were popular during the perestroika era, announced by the first and last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Children were born regularly in the USSR, but sex was a priori not allowed. Increased attention to corporeality was considered a sign of depravity, characteristic of the decaying capitalist West. The situation with nuclear weapons was roughly the same.

The USSR had a lot of it, and it was no less proud of it than the world’s best ballet or the largest volume of cast iron production. Naturally, the classic Soviet gigantomania was not absent from nuclear weapons.

The largest nuclear bomb in human history was detonated in 1961 over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. And Russia still surpasses the United States in the number of nuclear warheads.

At the same time, the ideology strongly reinforced in Soviet citizens the belief that the country with the most humane social system could not pose a nuclear threat: The USSR was only seeking parity to defend itself against the aggressive West.

Citizens who stood for pacifism and did not distinguish between the deadly arsenal of both sides were considered highly suspicious and persecuted as anti-social and antisoviet agents. However, the situation with punishment for pacifism was no better than with sex and the nuclear threat.

The fact is that none of the criminal codes of the Soviet republics provided for punishment for propaganda of pacifism — there was no such article anywhere. However, there was a set of articles under which pacifists were prosecuted.

And it was quite inventive and varied: «embezzlement», «malicious vandalism», «anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda», «slander of the state and social system». It was under these charges that members of such pacifist organizations as «The Group for the Establishment of Trust between the USSR and the United States» and «The Free Initiative» were convicted.

 

TRUST INCOMPATIBLE WITH SOVIET VALUES

 

The Soviet state reacted very harshly to the creation of the «Trust Group» in 1982. There were about five years left before perestroika began, and nine years before the collapse of the USSR. This once again confirms the rule: the darkest darkness is thickest before the dawn.

A group of eleven people, including mathematicians, physicists, engineers, an artist, and a doctor, organized a press conference for foreign journalists accredited in the USSR. Obviously, it was impossible to hold such an event in any state institution, so it was held in a private Moscow apartment, where an appeal to the governments and public of the USSR and the United States was published.

The Soviet Peace Committee and Presidium of the Supreme Soviet also received letters with the text of the appeal. The Soviet leadership and the press ignored it. Instead, it caused a huge response among Western journalists and pacifist organizations.

First of all, because the group’s activities were interactive — it called on people to send in practical proposals that would help stop the arms race and establish trusting relations between the East and the West. The proposals were carefully analyzed, and the group members selected the most effective ones.

After that, they were formalized in the form of written appeals, and signatures were collected. And then copies were sent to Soviet and foreign publications, as well as to government agencies.

It seems that there is nothing wrong with that? What threat to the state system could this kind of pacifism pose?

Meanwhile, it was interpreted by the soviet authorities as a slander against the state system, because between the lines it seemed to see an equal threat to peace from both nuclear superpowers and called on them to negotiate and trust each other. But the enemy was invented solely to kill and defeat him.

The call to trust the enemy is a flagrant Anti-Sovietism and undermining of all principles. In addition, it turned out that the group’s popular diplomacy competed with official diplomacy. The socialist state, where the people were officially considered the source of power, could not allow such unpunished «hippie» behavior.

 

WHEN WE SAY «HIPPIE», WE MEAN «PSYCHO»

 

 However, it was difficult to formally make a claim against the «Group for the Establishment of Trust between the USSR and the United States». Its members were too visible and fought for an undoubtedly good cause in the eyes of millions of people. It was not possible to imprison a person for a pacifist position, but declaring a peacekeeper insane and sending him to a mental hospital was quite to the taste of the soviet repressive machine.

And yet, the likelihood that eleven people could simultaneously go insane on the grounds of restoring good relations between America and the Union was small. World public opinion could not be fooled in this way. Therefore, not everyone was forcibly sent to the madhouse, some were sent under the articles mentioned above.

Yuriy Popov and Sergey Troyansky, leaders of the pacifist group «Free Initiative», were also repeatedly sent to a psychiatric hospital. They were also among the most famous hippies in the USSR. They did not consider themselves dissidents and even distanced themselves from them on principle.

They published magazines, wrote poetry, published anarchist manifestos, and organized performances. They preached love and freedom, not seeing much sense in life if it did not include John Lennon, drugs, and anarchic principles.

In other words, they were fairly harmless figures of the cultural underground, although they condemned the war in Afghanistan. Just as their overseas colleagues condemned the Vietnam War. But the «Anti-Afghan» sentiment was an unacceptable and pronounced Anti-Soviet position.

The year 1982 was also a landmark for this pacifist group, which then published its own manifesto. Its ideas were in many ways similar to the Trust Group’s manifesto.

Starting that year, every June 1 (the date was considered the informal birthday of Soviet hippies), they organized peaceful anti-war gatherings of anarchist hippies in a Moscow park. Such events often ended in police raids and arrests.

 

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HUMANITY IS CAPABLE OF COPING WITH AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT

 

Not only in the USSR, but also in the capitalist West, 1982 was also a special year.

The largest demonstration against nuclear weapons in world history took place in New York City. More than 1 million Americans took part in the anti-nuclear protest. You must admit that no country can accommodate such a large number of people in psychiatric hospitals.

Neither before nor after pacifist protests have reached such a scale. However, since the late 70s, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of American and European cities under anti-nuclear slogans. Sometimes such rallies ended in clashes with the police.

An important role was also played by the fact that approximately in the early 1970s, the USSR and the United States reached parity on the issue of strategic nuclear weapons. The pointlessness of a further race became apparent to both ordinary people and the leaders of the nuclear countries. Defusing international tensions became the number one topic in the world.

Public rejection of nuclear weapons and nuclear power increased especially after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. The protests that followed this event forced countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Malaysia, New Zealand, and others to reconsider their nuclear energy policies.

It is interesting that the inertia of those events is still at work: today, more nuclear power plants are being closed than opened in the world. This gives us hope that the nations of the world can still stand united to jointly eliminate the existential threat that hangs over them.

If it worked with nuclear power plants, why not do the same with nuclear weapons sooner or later? After all, the senselessness and criminality of nuclear blackmail is no less evident today than it was in the 1970s or 1980s.

Therefore, it is only fair that states that practice nuclear blackmail in the twenty-first century should be subjected to international isolation, widespread public condemnation, and severe economic sanctions.

 

AT THE VERY EDGE OF THE NUCLEAR ABYSS

 

A study of the history of pacifist movements suggests that their peak in 1982 was no accident. It seems that millions of people had a premonition that the world was on the verge of an irreversible nuclear catastrophe. And the following year, it turned out that this was indeed the case — for the first time in the history of the nuclear race, humanity came so close to the very edge of the abyss.

On September 26, 1983, at 0:15 a.m., a computer installed at the command post of the missile warning system in Serpukhov-15 near Moscow reported that the United States had launched a ballistic missile at the Soviet Union.

Curiously, this computer system was quite modern and new. It may seem like a mystical coincidence, but it was assembled and put on alert at the end of the fateful year of 1982.

When the big red letters START flashed on the screen, the officer on duty, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, was instructed to report this to his superiors, who had no more than 28 minutes to decide whether to retaliate. Petrov himself had a maximum of 15 minutes.

Violating the instructions, he reported to his superiors not the attack, but that the computer had crashed. He came to this conclusion by logically reasoning that if the United States had decided to launch a nuclear attack, missiles would have been launched from several bases. Further investigation confirmed Petrov’s point: the computer mistook the light reflected from the clouds for a missile launch.

The incident was immediately classified. Stanislav was interrogated and kept awake for three days, after which he was released home, extremely exhausted. Once at home, he drank a bottle of vodka in a minute with his comrade, the same officer who was 2 km away, at the same position, and was ordered to press the button to retaliate.

After that, the officers, who had experienced incredible stress, slept for 28 hours straight.

 

A FEAT THAT SOME PEOPLE REMEMBER, WHILE OTHERS TRIED TO FORGET

 

And then there was the Soviet reality of life. The Soviet leadership did not break with tradition: yes, thanks to Petrov, the world miraculously avoided nuclear war, but there was no feat! So at first they wanted to award Petrov, but then they changed their minds, and instead of encouragement, he was reprimanded for not keeping a proper combat log.

In a country where pacifism was considered a crime, preventing a nuclear war was expected to be interpreted not as a feat but as an official violation. Nevertheless, the world was very lucky that Petrov was on duty that day. Although he shouldn’t have been — he had to replace another officer who suddenly fell ill.

It is not known whether Petrov, who was a deeply religious orthodox man, saw this coincidence as a work of God, but he admitted that he was indeed the right person in the right place. In the 90s, the story was finally declassified. In 2006, at the UN headquarters, Stanislav Petrov was awarded a statuette with the inscription «To the man who prevented nuclear war».

In the West, films were made about him, articles and books were written, he was awarded prestigious prizes, and his story was used to create computer games. George Roger Waters of Pink Floyd dedicated a song to him.

Some pacifist organizations even celebrate September 26 as «Peter’s Day» — the day of the miraculous rescue of humanity from seemingly inevitable death.

It is only in today’s Russia that they prefer to forget about lieutenant colonel Petrov.

In a country that declares its readiness to be the first to use nuclear weapons with a cynicism that even the USSR did not allow itself, he is an unpopular figure. Even in the town of Fryazino near Moscow, where Stanislav Petrov lived for many years and died in 2017, you will not find any memory of his «quiet feat»: no street named after him, no monument, no plaque.

 


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