Soviet officer Vasili Arkhipov who prevented nuclear war 50 years ago honoured in London

Bravery recognised at time when 'risk of nuclear war is on rise'

Chloe Farand
Friday 27 October 2017 12:25 BST
Vasili Arkhipov prevented a Soviet submarine to launch a nuclear torpedo on a US aircraft carrier during the Cuban missile crisis
Vasili Arkhipov prevented a Soviet submarine to launch a nuclear torpedo on a US aircraft carrier during the Cuban missile crisis (National Geographic)

A Russian naval officer who refused to grant permission for the launch of nuclear torpedo at the height of the Cuban missile crisis is to be honoured in London almost 20 years after his death.

Vasili Arkhipov was aboard the B-59 Soviet submarine when an American destroyer, the USS Beale began to drop depth charges.

His captain Valentin Savitsky was unaware that they were non-lethal "practice" rounds intended as warning shots to force the vessel to surface.

As other US destroyers joined the Beale's attack Savitsky assumed that the submarine, which was carrying 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo, was doomed and that world war three had broken out.

He ordered that the torpedo be prepared for firing, its target the giant aircraft carrier, the USS Randolph.

Had this happened, nuclear radiation would have spread from the sea to the land, in all likelihood triggering US retaliation and plunging the world into a nuclear war.

To do so required the permission of three senior officers aboard the ship. Arkhipov refused.

The naval officer died in 1998 at the age of 72 with little public attention. But his bravery is finally due to be honoured at an event at the Institute of Engineering and Technology at the Savoy Place in London.

Organised by the Future of Life Institute, a not-for-profit organisation based in Boston, which works to mitigate existential risks faced by humanity including from nuclear weapons and advanced artificial intelligence, it will recognised what some have called "perhaps the single most valuable contribution to human survival in modern history".

A $50,000 (£38,182) prize is due to be collected by Mr Arkhipov's daughter, Yelena Andriukova, 65, and his grandson, Sergei, 34.

Mr Arhipov will become the first person to be honoured by the Future of Life Institute which scientific advisory board includes Stephen Hawking and Tesla chief Elon Musk.

Speaking to The Times, Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Mr Arkhipov's story shows how close to a nuclear catastrophe we have been in the past and how relevant his story is at a time when "the risk of nuclear war is on the rise".

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