The Man Who Single-Handedly Prevented Nuclear War and the Soviet Submarine B-59

The Man Who Single-Handedly Prevented Nuclear War and the Soviet Submarine B-59

A new opera will recount the tale of a Soviet navy officer who narrowly avoided starting a nuclear war in 1962. In 1926, Vasili Arkhipov was born into a rural household not far from Moscow. He worked as a minesweeper in World War II before starting work on Soviet submarines in 1947. As he advanced through the ranks, he was able to stop a mutiny on a nuclear submarine when its nuclear reactor malfunctioned.

Eight crew members died as a result of the disaster, and Arkhipov himself contracted radiation illness and eventually passed away in 1998. For most individuals, that would be a defining moment in their lives, but Arkhipov saw it as merely a minor incident on the way to saving the world from a third world war.

At the time of the missile crisis, Arkhipov was serving as second in command on the Soviet B-59 nuclear submarine. After the US imposed a naval embargo on Cuba, the navy started using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to the surface. The Soviet submarine commanders in the region were not informed of the warning before the non-lethal charges were dropped on the Soviets. Due to this breakdown in communication, the captain of the B-59 assumed that they were under assault and that World War III had started when he noticed charges being dropped on his ship.

The submarine’s 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo was to be ready to launch against a US aircraft carrier and throw fallout ashore, per Captain Vitali Savitsky’s instruction. The nuclear torpedo or any other nuclear weapon in the submarine’s arsenal would have likely sparked retaliation and, given the tension in the world at the time, a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, especially if the US had believed the order to fire had come directly from the Kremlin.

However, the procedure required the captain, the political officer of the ship, and Arkhipov to approve the launch. Only Arkhipov, among the three men, pleaded against using nuclear weapons. After a protracted debate, he was able to persuade the others to surface the ship and ask for more orders from the Kremlin rather than launch.

The opera, ARKHIPOV, tells the tale of the incident from the submariners’ early exhilaration and camaraderie through their increasing privation to a tortured state in which a decision to end the world appears almost plausible.