Vasily Arkhipov

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Vasily Arkhipov
Vasili Arkhipov.jpg
Native name
Василий Александрович Архипов
Born(1926-01-30)30 January 1926
Zvorkovo, Moscow Oblast, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Died19 August 1998(1998-08-19) (aged 72)
Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast, Russia
Service/branchSoviet Navy
Years of service1945–1980s
RankVice admiral
Spouse(s)Olga Arkhipova

Vasily Aleksandrovich Arkhipov (Russian: Василий Александрович Архипов, IPA: [vɐˈsʲilʲɪj ɐlʲɪkˈsandrəvʲɪtɕ arˈxʲipəf], 30 January 1926 – 19 August 1998) was a Soviet Naval officer who prevented a Soviet nuclear torpedo launch during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such an attack likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response, destroying large parts of the Northern Hemisphere.[1]

As flotilla Commodore as well as executive officer of the diesel powered submarine B-59, Arkhipov refused to authorize the captain and the political officer's use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision which required the agreement of all three officers. In 2002, Thomas S. Blanton, then director of the U.S. National Security Archive, credited Arkhipov as "the man who saved the world".

Early life[edit]

Arkhipov was born into a peasant family in the town of Staraya Kupavna, near Moscow. He was educated in the Pacific Higher Naval School and participated in the Soviet–Japanese War in August 1945, serving aboard a minesweeper. He transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School and graduated in 1947.[2]

Early career[edit]

After graduating in 1947, Arkhipov served in the submarine service aboard boats in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets.[2]

K-19 accident[edit]

In July 1961, Arkhipov was appointed deputy commander and therefore executive officer of the new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19.[2] After a few days of conducting exercises off the south-east coast of Greenland, the submarine developed an extreme leak in its reactor coolant system. This leak led to a failure of the cooling system. Radio communications were also affected, and the crew was unable to make contact with Moscow.

With no backup systems, captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered the seven members of the engineer crew to come up with a solution to avoid nuclear meltdown. This required the men to work in high radiation levels for extended periods. They eventually came up with a secondary coolant system and were able to prevent a reactor meltdown.

Although they were able to save themselves from a nuclear meltdown, the entire crew, including Arkhipov, were irradiated. All members of the engineer crew and their divisional officer died within a month due to the high levels of radiation they were exposed to. Over the course of two years, 15 more sailors died from the after-effects.[3]

Involvement in Cuban Missile Crisis[edit]

Soviet submarine B-59, in the Caribbean near Cuba.[4]

On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of 11 United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. (The B-59 was one of four Foxtrot submarines sent by the USSR to the area around Cuba.) Despite being in international waters, the United States Navy started dropping signaling depth charges, which were intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification.[5][6]

By then, there had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days, and although the B-59's crew had been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts earlier on, the submarine was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, as it was busy trying to hide from its American pursuers. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not.[7][8] The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigoryevich Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.[9]

Unlike other Soviet submarines armed with the "Special Weapon", where only the captain and the political officer were required to authorize a nuclear launch, the authorization of all three officers on board the B-59 were needed instead; this was due to Arkhipov's position as Commodore of the flotilla. The three men were captain Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semyonovich Maslennikov, and executive officer Arkhipov. An argument broke out between the three of them, with only Arkhipov against the launch.[10]

Although Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the B-59, he was the Commodore of the entire submarine flotilla, which included the B-4, the B-36 and the B-130.[11] According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's K-19 incident played a large role in the debate to launch the torpedo.[9] Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. His persuasion effectively averted a nuclear war which would have likely ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired.[12] The B-59's batteries ran very low and its air conditioning failed, which caused extreme heat and generated high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine.[11] It surfaced amid the US warships pursuing it and made contact with a US destroyer. After discussions with the ship, B-59 was then ordered by the Russian fleet to set course back to the Soviet Union.[13]

In 1997 Arkhipov himself wrote that after surfacing, his submarine was fired on with warning shots by American aircraft: "the plane, flying over the conning tower, 1 to 3 seconds before the start of fire turned on powerful searchlights and blinded the people on the bridge... when [the commander] blinked and blinked his eyes and could see again, it became clear that the plane was firing past and along the boat. And the subsequent similar actions (there were 12 overflights altogether) were not as worrisome any longer."[14][15]


Immediately upon return to Russia, many crew members were faced with disgrace from their superiors. One admiral told them "It would have been better if you'd gone down with your ship." Olga, Arkhipov's wife, said that "he didn't like talking about it, he felt they hadn't appreciated what they had gone through."[16] Each captain was required to present a report of events during the mission to Marshal Andrei Grechko, who substituted for the ill Soviet defense minister.[17]

Grechko was infuriated with the crew's failure to follow the strict orders of secrecy after finding out they had been discovered by the Americans. One officer even noted Grechko's reaction, stating that he "upon learning that it was the diesel submarines that went to Cuba, removed his glasses and hit them against the table in fury, breaking them into small pieces and abruptly leaving the room after that."[18]

In 2002, retired commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, a participant in the events, held an interview revealing the submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes and that Arkhipov was the reason those weapons had not been fired. Orlov presented the events less dramatically, saying that Captain Savitsky lost his temper, but eventually calmed down.[19]

Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, stated in 2002 that "We came very, very close [to nuclear war], closer than we knew at the time."[20] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an advisor for the John F. Kennedy administration and a historian, continued this thought by stating "This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history."[21]

Later life and death[edit]

Arkhipov continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975, and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. Arkhipov was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid-1980s.

He settled in Kupavna (which was incorporated into Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast, in 2004), where he died on 19 August 1998.[2] The radiation to which Arkhipov had been exposed in 1961 may have contributed to his kidney cancer, like many others who served with him in the K-19 accident.[16]

Nikolai Zateyev, the commander of the submarine K-19 at the time of its onboard nuclear accident, died on 28 August 1998. Both Arkhipov and Zateyev were 72 at the time of their deaths.

Personal life[edit]

Arkhipov was married to Olga Arkhipova until his death in 1998. They had a daughter named Yelena.

Arkhipov was known to be a shy and humble man. In a 2012 PBS documentary titled The Man Who Saved the World,[22] his wife described him as intelligent, polite and very calm. Much of what is known about his personality comes from her. According to her, he enjoyed searching for newspapers during their vacations and tried to stay up-to-date with the modern world as much as possible. In this same interview, Olga alluded to her husband's possible superstitious beliefs as well. She recalls walking in on Vasily burning a bundle of their love letters inside their house, claiming that keeping the letters would mean "bad luck".[23]

In popular culture[edit]

The character of Captain Mikhail Polenin, portrayed by Liam Neeson, in the 2002 film K-19: The Widowmaker was closely based on Arkhipov's tenure on Soviet submarine K-19.[24][25] Similarly, Denzel Washington's character in Crimson Tide (1995) is an officer who refused to affirm the launch orders of a submarine captain.[26] Leon Ockenden portrayed Arkhipov in Season 12 Episode 1 of Secrets of the Dead, titled "The Man Who Saved the World". It was aired 23 October 2012 on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.[27]

The 2021 novel Red Traitor by Owen Matthews includes Arkhipov as a major viewpoint character, and is dedicated to him.

The musical group Converge dedicated a composition called "Arkhipov Calm" to Arkhipov in 2017.

Awards and honors[edit]

In recognition of his actions onboard B-59, Arkhipov received the first "Future of Life Award," which was presented posthumously to his family in 2017.[28] Offered by the Future of Life Institute, this award recognizes exceptional measures, often performed despite personal risk and without obvious reward, to safeguard the collective future of humanity.[29]

In 2002, Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the U.S. National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov "saved the world".[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Noam Chomsky, in his book Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance,[1] quoted Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive as saying that we were "one word away from nuclear war." Chomsky stated that "a devastating response would have been a near certainty" and quoted President Dwight Eisenhower as saying that "a major war would destroy the Northern Hemisphere" (Chomsky, p. 74).
  2. ^ a b c d Roberts, Priscilla Mary (2012). "Arkhipov, Vasily Alexandrovich (1926-1999)". Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide. Abc-Clio Inc. pp. 13–14. ISBN 9781610690652.
  3. ^ "Epilogue: Tragedy Upon Tragedy". K-19: The History. National Geographic. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
  4. ^ Burr, William; Blanton, Thomas S., eds. (31 October 2002). The submarines of October: U.S. and Soviet Naval Encounters During the Cuban Missile Crisis. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book. Archived from the original on 18 May 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2008.
  5. ^ Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, Vintage, Random House, 2009. Includes photograph of B-59 surfacing.
  6. ^ "Chronology of Submarine Contact During the Cuban Missile Crisis". National Security Archive of the George Washington University. Retrieved 15 November 2010.
  7. ^ Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, Vintage, Random House, 2009. Includes photograph of B-59 surfacing.
  8. ^ "Chronology of Submarine Contact During the Cuban Missile Crisis". National Security Archive of the George Washington University. Retrieved 15 November 2010.
  9. ^ a b Wilson, Edward (27 October 2012). "Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2 July 2021. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
  10. ^ Chomsky, Noam (2004). Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt. p. 74. ISBN 0-8050-7688-3.
  11. ^ a b "About participation of submarines "B-4," "B-36," "B-59," "B-130" of the 69th submarine brigade of the Northern Fleet in the Operation "Anadyr" during the period of October–December, 1962/CARIBBEAN CRISIS/" (PDF). National Security Archive. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  12. ^ Blanton, Thomas S. (16 October 2002). "The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later" (Interview). Interviewed by The Washington Post; Forum users. Archived from the original on 30 August 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2010.
  13. ^ "A Russian submarine had a 'Crimson Tide' moment near Cuba". 20 May 2022.
  14. ^ "Vice-Admiral Vasili Arkhipov | National Security Archive".
  15. ^ "The Underwater Cuban Missile Crisis at 60 | National Security Archive".
  16. ^ a b "The Man Who Saved the World". Secrets of the Dead. PBS. 24 October 2012.
  17. ^ Savranskaya, Svetlana (24 January 2007). "New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis" (PDF). Journal of Strategic Studies. 28 (2): 248. doi:10.1080/01402390500088312. S2CID 154967351. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  18. ^ Savranskaya, Svetlana (24 January 2007). "New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis" (PDF). Journal of Strategic Studies. 28 (2): 248. doi:10.1080/01402390500088312. S2CID 154967351. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  19. ^ Isachsnkov, Vladimir (21 June 2002). "Russian Book Looks at Missile Crisis". Johnson's Russia List. Archived from the original on 30 May 2011. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
  20. ^ Leonard, Mark; Blackhurst, Rob (19 May 2002). "'I don't think anybody thought much about whether Agent Orange was against the rules of war'". The Observer. Archived from the original on 14 March 2021. Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  21. ^ Lloyd, Marion (13 October 2002). "Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis, Forum is Told". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 10 July 2021. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  22. ^ "The Man Who Saved the World". 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  23. ^ Codi von Richthofen (21 February 2015), Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World, archived from the original on 13 December 2021, retrieved 26 February 2017
  24. ^ "K-19: The Widowmaker". Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  25. ^ "Gorbachev Proposes Soviet Sub Crew For Nobel Peace Prize". Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  26. ^ "The Russian who saved humankind". Red Kalinka. Retrieved 29 August 2017.
  27. ^ "The Man Who Saved the World". Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  28. ^ Davis, Nicola (27 October 2017). "Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 19 July 2021. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  29. ^ Davey, Tucker (27 October 2017). "55 Years After Preventing Nuclear Attack, Arkhipov Honored With Inaugural Future of Life Award". Future of Life Institute. Archived from the original on 16 May 2021. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  30. ^ Lloyd, Marion (13 October 2002). "Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis, Forum is Told". The Boston Globe. pp. A20. Archived from the original on 10 July 2021. Retrieved 7 August 2012.

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