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Apocalypse 1983

I don’t believe in premonitions. I believe in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That’s why I ignore my inexplicable unease as I show my papers to the guard at the Serpukhov-15 bunker, just outside Moscow. I’m probably just tired.

I have been ordered here by General Votintsev as Colonel Petrov has called in sick. He should have been on duty today, but his illness means I’ve been reassigned. I’ve already done several shifts over the past week, and would rather be resting at the barracks. However, orders are orders.

Acknowledging my Colonel’s uniform, the guard salutes and waves me through. I cross the tall barbed-wire perimeter fence, striding the one hundred yards to the large white rectangular central building. I’m startled by a sudden flock of crows bursting out of the surrounding trees. For a few seconds I watch the soaring birds silhouetted against the setting sun and experience a shuddering chill; as though a bitter winter extends grasping frosty fingers into early autumn, eager to accelerate the waning of summer. The crows caw, as though panicked.

I stare up at the white spherical domes inside the bunker perimeter, the epicentre of our grand republic’s early warning satellite network. If the Americans dare to launch, their aggression will be detected in seconds. But they won’t attack. They are decadent cowards. I ignore my unease and renew my walk to the bunker.

Once inside, I take the lift up two floors to my workstation, where I begin my shift monitoring the computer systems alongside several others, whom I also oversee. I exchange a few pleasantries with the man I am relieving, Igor Komorovsky, who like myself and Stanislav Petrov, holds the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. But whereas Colonel Petrov had a civilian education, Colonel Komorovsky and I have a purely military background. We trained together, but we aren’t close friends.

‘I’ve left my report in the logs,’ Komorovsky says as he gets up to leave. ‘All quiet as usual.’

‘What’s that?’ I ask, indicating an American periodical placed near the red telephone to Central Command.

Photo by Roman Skrypnyk on Unsplash

Komorovsky looks a little embarrassed. ‘Contraband,’ he replies, holding it up to me. I roll my eyes as I see the name of the magazine, Variety. The chronicle of decadent Hollywood capitalism.

‘One of these days I ought to report your excessive interest in American movies,’ I say.

‘You expect me to believe, Comrade Colonel Fedorov, that you’ve not once been tempted to view one of those pirated videotapes? You don’t want to see The Godfather or Star Wars?’

I shake my head. ‘I see no reason to indulge in western propaganda.’

Komorovsky scoffs. ‘You’re a liar and a hypocrite, Andrei.’

‘I’m a patriot,’ I say, glancing through the pages of Variety. ‘Besides, according to this, that third Star Wars film you’re so interested in, Revenge of the Jedi, isn’t being well received by American audiences.’ I frown, as I read the text. ‘Too strange for them, apparently. Something about this director, David Lynch, being a bad choice.’

‘Give me that!’ Komorovsky says, grabbing the paper from my hands. ‘Since you’re too high-minded for western propaganda.’

‘Now I’ll have nothing to read.’

‘There’s a copy of today’s Pravda in the kitchen. How’s your wife?’

‘Inessa’s good.’

Komorovsky flashes a leering grin. ‘And that lovely teenage daughter of yours? How is her ballet?’

‘Anya’s also doing well,’ I say, wishing Komorovsky would leave.

‘I look forward to watching her one of these days.’

I sense Komorovsky wants to get a rise out of me, possibly because of my disapproval of his interest in western propaganda. Ignoring him, I turn to the desk and examine the panels of computer equipment and their various settings. As I adjust a few dials and switches, Komorovsky finally takes the hint.

‘Have a good shift, Comrade Colonel.’

My eyes turn to the telephone. I stare at it until I hear Komorovsky’s footsteps fade away. If he keeps making remarks about Anya, I really will report his interest in western movies.

I lean back and sigh. Routine monitoring of the Oko early warning system is an incredibly dull assignment. My thoughts drift to Inessa. Life has been so busy lately. We haven’t spent nearly enough time together.

Over the next few hours, I man my post, make routine equipment checks, liaise with other staff, and fill in paperwork, all whilst listening to the USSR State Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky live in concert on Radio Moskva. Shortly after midnight, I instruct one of my subordinates, Comrade Sergeant Leonid, to bring me the copy of Pravda that Komorovsky mentioned had been left in the kitchen. A few minutes later, Comrade Leonid returns. He’s a small, gaunt figure with long greasy hair and eyes too large for their sockets.

‘Your newspaper, Comrade Colonel.’

I take the copy of Pravda. ‘Busy tonight, Comrade Sergeant?’

‘No Comrade Colonel. Everything seems quite norm…’

A siren blares. A red light on the ceiling flashes, and my control panel lights up like a Christmas tree. I head to the desk and examine the computer readings. Other staff rush to their stations. Seconds later the dot matrix printer splutters into life, spewing out paper. I tear the sheet and examine the readings. My eyes widen. My heart pounds. I’m incredulous.

According to our satellites, the Americans have launched an intercontinental ballistic missile.

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Leonid stares at me in disbelief. He knows what this means as well as I do.

I stare at the red phone at the side of my desk, a direct line to my superiors at Central Command. Protocol demands I inform them immediately. Any delays could seriously compromise our counterattack. My stomach clenches. I think of Inessa and Anya as my hand hovers over the telephone.

‘Is this a drill?’ Leonid asks.

I shake my head. ‘No, it’s not a drill.’

‘It could be a malfunction. We’ve been chasing down the bugs in this system ever since they installed it.’

‘That will be all, Comrade Sergeant,’ I say. I can’t have this man questioning what must be done. Orders are orders.

‘But the system is still relatively new. This could be a false alarm. My instinct tells me…’

‘We’re here to follow orders, not instincts, no matter how unpleasant those orders might be.’

‘Comrade Colonel, please listen to me. If you pick up that phone, standing orders from Comrade Chairman Andropov are to launch a full retaliatory strike. We won’t have time to check for errors.’

‘The computer has double-checked the information twenty-eight times, Comrade Sergeant. It is for this reason that we have all the checks in place. We can’t ignore orders on a whim.’

‘Just think about this for a second. What if you’re wrong?’

I pause. My hand hovers over the phone. As I’m about to pick it up, the computer printer bursts to life again. I tear the sheet from the machine before it has finished printing. The system has detected another four ballistic missiles launched from American airspace. Additional sirens blare, and I yell over them at Leonid.

‘There’s your proof, Comrade Sergeant! We’ve no time to spare!’

I rush to the phone, but Leonid grabs my arm. ‘Wait!’

‘Comrade Sergeant, let go of me!’

Our altercation attracts the attention of other staff. One of them rushes out of the door, presumably to alert our KGB minders.

‘You need to think about what you’re doing. I’m telling you we’ve been finding faults in this system. It isn’t foolproof. We need visual confirmation of an attack.’

‘The satellites provide visual confirmation and tell the computer.’

‘The Oko system could be wrong. We need human eyes to verify or at the very least land radar confirmation.’

‘Comrade Sergeant, we are wasting time! We have minutes before those missiles hit their targets, and then we’ll be severely compromised in our counterattack.’

‘Comrade Colonel I’m begging you! Think of your wife. Think of your daughter.’

‘Let go!’

I wrestle free of Leonid and move to pick up the phone, but Leonid slams his hand down on mine.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

An American attack would not look like this, Comrade Colonel. I’ve discussed this with Comrade Colonel Petrov. He says the Americans would launch at least a hundred missiles, not just five.’

‘Comrade Sergeant, whilst I’m delighted to hear about your cordial interactions with Comrade Colonel Petrov, he is not the officer on duty tonight. I am. And I am following the orders I have been given by my chain of command. They are not open to interpretation. They are not ambiguous. They do not require that I listen to the instincts of technicians. However, they do require that I pick up this phone and inform Central Command that the Americans have launched five nuclear missiles against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.’

I force Leonid’s hand off mine and shove him back. At that moment, two tall KGB minders in black suits march up to the desk.

‘What’s going on, Comrade Colonel?’ one of the minders asks.

‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘A slight disagreement. I need to make an urgent call.’

With that, I pick up the red telephone. Other staff members stop working and fix their gaze on me. I hold the phone in my hands, my eyes locked with Leonid’s. Sweat forms on his pale brow, and I see pleading in his eyes. But if I do not follow orders, I will face court-martial and probable imprisonment. I can hardly be a good husband to Inessa and a good father to Anya from a gulag. My eyes dart to the KGB minders as General Votintsev answers the phone. I yell down the receiver over the blaring sirens.

‘Comrade General, this is Comrade Colonel Andrei Fedorov at Serpukhov-15. We have a confirmed launch from the United States. Five intercontinental ballistic missiles.’

‘Do we have land radar confirmation?’ Votintsev asks.

‘Negative.’

‘Thank you, Comrade Colonel. Stand by for further instructions.’

The phone goes dead. I slowly replace the receiver, but it doesn’t seem to make a sound. I feel light-headed. Like a ghost. Leonid shakes his head in despair.

‘You’ve condemned us all,’ he mutters.

‘Any word from land radar,’ I ask those assembled.

Several of my subordinates rush to and fro picking up phones, attempting to contact military installations to get confirmation. I remain at my post with Leonid and the KGB minders, both of whom have also turned pale. But I’ve done my duty. I’ve followed orders. I have fulfilled my oath to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The red phone rings again. I pick it up. General Votintsev addresses me.

‘Comrade Colonel Fedorov, Chairman Andropov has ordered a full retaliatory strike against the United States. Missiles have been launched. You and your staff are ordered to enter the fallout shelter immediately.’

‘Thank you, Comrade General,’ I reply. ‘It has been an honour.’

As I’m about to convey General Votintsev’s instructions, Leonid has a whispered conversation with two of his colleagues. Both shake their heads, ashen-faced.

‘Is there a problem, comrades?’ I ask.

‘Still no confirmation from land radar,’ Leonid replies. ‘Also, preliminary data suggest the system was in error detecting the American launch.’

Those present exchange appalled glances. I feel sick, but force myself to shut down speculation. I am the ranking officer, and the chain of command needs to be respected.

‘We don’t know anything for certain at this point. However, we do know that we followed procedure in alerting Central Command. A full retaliatory strike has been ordered.’

Gasps break out across the room.

‘We are instructed to make our way to the fallout shelter immediately. Sound the evacuation.’

Without needing to be asked twice, Leonid, the KGB minders, and the other staff make their way from the room to the lift. Leonid sounds the evacuation alarm and is last inside as the lift makes its way down to the fallout shelter.

We stand in the lift in silence. My heart pounds, but I force myself to remain calm. Perhaps the American counterattack won’t be as Comrade Colonel Petrov feared. Perhaps we will manage to strike them first. Perhaps there will be a world to return to, amid the ruins.

My thoughts turn to Inessa and Anya. Kaleidoscopic memories flash before my eyes. Playing in the woods as a child. My parent’s flat in Obninsk. Learning our republic’s proud revolutionary history. Military training in Siberia. Making love to Inessa. Anya’s birth. Watching her learn ballet. A howl of despair screams within me, attempting to rise to my mouth, but I push it down. I believe in the Revolution. I believe in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We will prevail. Even if I made a mistake, even if I should have paid attention to my premonition of disaster, we will prevail.

An image from earlier that day comes unbidden to my mind. Cawing crows silhouetted against the setting sun.

***

Author’s note: This story was inspired by the real-life 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident, in which Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty, unlike the events in the parallel universe I’ve just described. After an alarm indicated the presence of incoming American nuclear missiles, Petrov chose to ignore standing orders to alert his superiors to wait for corroborating evidence. When none arrived, he correctly concluded the warning had been a false alarm, caused by errors in the satellite warning system.

Petrov’s instincts are widely credited for having averted a full-scale nuclear war between the USA and USSR. Furthermore, Petrov subsequently stated that had someone else been on duty that night, a nuclear strike would almost certainly have occurred, as the other duty officers did not have a civilian background, and their military mindset would have meant orders were followed to the letter. Petrov was not rewarded for his heroic actions, but he was reprimanded by his superiors for improper filing of paperwork. You can read more about this incident here.

Copyright 2021 Simon Dillon. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

Header Image Credit: Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

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Responses

  1. I remember having nightmares about a nuclear war, growing up in the 70s there was a sense that it was just around the corner. I wonder if nowadays the threat is still real, but we just got used to it. Great piece.