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ost history teachers never tell us about what could arguably be considered the most important person in human history. Someone who has played the utmost vital role in our history and without whom we may have not existed.

This story is about Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who saved the world from a thermonuclear war by disobeying orders and using his rational thinking. It is amazing to hear about a Soviet soldier disobeying orders as this would end up with a bullet, a pistol, and a corpse with a hole in their head. It is not only about being a hero but also about having the courage to disobey orders when you know that it would be certain death. However, not disobeying them, in this case, would have also meant certain death.

A real superhero

Vasili was born in a family of peasants (like most Soviet citizens) in a village near Moscow. He did not partake in most of World War Two but had fought in the Soviet-Japanese war in August of 1945. After that, he stayed enrolled as a soldier upon entering the Cold War era. He ranked up to become one of the three commanders of the B-59 Soviet submarine which took part in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Vasili Arkhipov and wife Olga Arkhipova (Source: courtesy of M. Yarovskaya, A. Labunskaya)

In October of 1962, when the Soviet Union sent nuclear Submarines to Cuba in order to be within range of major American cities, the Soviet submarines were detected by the U.S. naval forces. The reason the Soviet Union had mobilized these nuclear submarines is that the U.S. had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, close enough to hit Moscow.

Due to this, Kennedy who was the president of the U.S. at the time made a blockade around Cuba, denying all access to either enter or exit Cuba.

The captain of the B-59 Soviet submarine was Valentin Savitsky, a very severe and aristocratic captain which had to be spontaneous with his decisions. Upon seeing that the submarine had been detected by the enemy, Valentin ordered his crew to prepare the ballistic missiles for launch even if he did not receive authorization from Moscow to do so.

A decision that saved humanity

Vasili was only a second commander, but even so, he was equal to Savitsky as Vasili was at the command of the whole submarine fleet stuck in Cuba, that’s including the B-36, B-130, and B-4 nuclear Soviet submarines. Vasili was much more appreciated by all of the soldiers aboard these submarines due to the K-19 incident that had occurred a year earlier.

In order to launch a missile from a Soviet submarine, there was a very specific protocol that had to be followed. The launch panel required two (in some cases three) keys to be activated. The commanders of the submarine would be the ones who carried the keys and it was only when all keys would be turned that the launch panel would start a countdown to launch.

B-59 submarine is kept under surveillance by a US Navy SH-34 helicopter. (Source: US National Archives)

Savitsky put his key into the launch panel, but Vasili knew this would only end one way, so he swallowed the key to make sure that the only way that missile would be launched would be over his dead body.

After the launch had been aborted, the submarine was surfaced above to be greeted by two U.S. battleships and nine destroyers. The U.S. Army did not know if the B-59 submarine actually had nuclear missiles on board, but they were surely not going to take the risk by shooting the submarine, so they ordered the Soviet troops to return to the Soviet Union.

Vasili Arkhipov on the B-59 sub on his surrender to the U.S. naval forces (Source: Channel 5)

Vasili knew that there was a high chance of him being punished for the “Unsovietic” decision he had made, but if it wasn’t for that decision, I am more than sure that I would not be sitting here writing this article and you would not be here either to read this article.

Upon reaching the Soviet Union, Vasili was actually promoted for his decision as he managed to save the crew on the Submarine and indirectly for stopping a nuclear war that even the Soviets did not want on their heads.

If that missile had been launched, due to the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it would have turned into a thermonuclear World War that would have brought this world to an end. That was also the time when both powers had the most amount of nuclear weapons due to the constant Arms Race (a competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. for who had the biggest stash of nuclear weapons).

Sadly, our hero lost the battle with cancer on the 19th of August, 1998. This was due to the radiation he suffered on the K-19 submarine in 1961. He was described by his wife as polite, courageous, intelligent, and calm. In other words, a man to die for.

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