10/25/2012 - 22:53

On the brink of the abyss in the Urals

Valery Yarynich

Valery Yarynich

Yarynich, a retired colonel, served as a specialist in command, control, and communications in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces from 1959 until his retirement in 1986. From 1986 until 1992 he...

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The escalation of the crisis in relations between the United States and Soviet Union in October 1962 had a most direct impact on the lives of the staff officers for the Kirov rocket corps, named after the city nearest its bases in the Ural Mountains. On October 23, I received orders to go to one of the two divisions of our corps in which intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) of the 8K64 type -- SS-7 in American terminology -- had recently been put on combat duty. Each of these missiles could deliver a nuclear warhead with an explosive yield of three megatons a distance of 8,100 miles. They were the first strategic missiles with which Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could threaten America. Of course, the Soviet Union was not yet making ​​ICBMs like sausages, which would become the case as the Cold War continued, but there were enough at the time -- 25 in two divisions -- to create a new Armageddon. On this trip, I had a specific task: I was to take all possible measures to ensure that the division received its orders from Moscow, and, if necessary, launched its missiles in a timely fashion. As a representative of the rocket corps staff, I was endowed with adequate powers for this purpose.

On the way to the city of Nizhny Tagil and the 42nd Missile Division of the Strategic Rocket Forces, I was very surprised, looking at the people around me; they didn't show any signs of anxiety, and they behaved as in normal times. No one spoke about the Cuban crisis and the possibility of nuclear war with America. The Soviet people were living a peaceful life, and I suddenly realized that in this intense moment, just the military -- no, only we, the rocket men -- were at the forefront. A lot depended on us. And I thought: "How nice that our government is not telling the truth to the people. If all these people around knew about the current events, think of what would have started here!"

In 2002, watching the great American film Thirteen Days, I experienced these events again, only this time through American eyes. After President Kennedy's speech to the country about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the American people were deeply concerned, and here and there began a sort of panic.

There was no panic in the Soviet Union at that time, however, and as I traveled toward the rocket base, my heart became a little lighter. "Maybe, really, it's not so scary," I thought. "It may be all right." But another voice told me: "No. You're going to prepare nuclear missiles, which must take off in the direction of America and destroy it. And you are responsible for that." My head was spinning. "Some kind of hell! Why would I do this? Why is everyone else doing it?" I asked myself. "Why do this to the Americans who live better than we? Is this not all a dream?" But it was no dream; it was a true -- if uniquely terrible -- reality.

My thoughts raced. Of course, I did not want to die at age 25; I had not lived yet. Thank God, though, I had not had time to get married, and I had no children. But my mother, father, and 15-year-old sister were living in Leningrad. For that, they will suffer? Would the Americans dare to destroy this beautiful city?

A few months before these events, we had a family tragedy: My favorite older brother drowned while fishing. We found his body in the Vuoksi River on the Karelian Isthmus north of St. Petersburg, after 28 days of persistent searches. It is true that the death of a loved one turns the mind to the inevitability of death. So it was with me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But here another factor also played a role: the realization that within an hour, hundreds of thousands of people, and then perhaps millions, could be killed. Such thoughts moved self-preservation to second place in my concerns and raised an even larger question: "What about the Earth? Is it the end of civilization? Why, and who cares?"

Once I arrived at the rocket division, I had to force myself to throw these ideas aside and start working. Checking the division command post, I found that it was ready to receive orders and manage all its rocket regiments. Combat crews were sufficiently "motivated." Now, I had to get acquainted with the state of affairs at the launchers themselves. The division's chief of communications drove us there.

At an intersection in the forest, the cross traffic was blocked by special heavy machinery moving to the launch sites. "These are fuel tankers for the missiles," the chief of communications told me. We looked at each other and said nothing. It was clear that this was a critical moment. If the missiles were fueled, then a kind of economic aspect would come into play because of the level of missile technology then available. The fact is that, after the missiles were fueled, there would be only two possible courses of action: The first would be to drain the fuel and throw the missiles in the landfill as absolutely worthless. The second option would be to launch the missiles at their designated targets. In efficiency and cost terms, the second version was much more acceptable. Of course, such a bookkeeper's approach could not be the sole justification for a decision to launch the missiles. But who knows? Perhaps the cost factor would be a last straw that fell at a critical moment in the crisis.

We rushed back to the division command post. There I found an unusual, almost complete silence. In the telegraph room only one machine was tapping: The telegraph girl was receiving a signal, via the Monolith command and control system of the General Staff, used to transmit coded signals, such as numbers and words, to the units of the Strategic Rocket Forces. I took the telegraph tape and read only one word: "Brontosaurus." As a signals officer of the Strategic Rocket Forces, I knew what the code word "Brontosaurus" meant: All wireless communications had to start using wartime frequencies. For signals officers, this signified the beginning of a nuclear war, since this code could never be transmitted in peacetime. Now the real fun begins, I thought, and felt my back instantly start to sweat.

Col. Gen. Victor Yesin, a longtime friend, told me 47 years later what happened in these dramatic hours in Cuba. He was then a young lieutenant in the Strategic Rocket Forces, and he and his colleagues were near the Soviet missiles that had been transferred secretly to Cuba. There were 40 missiles -- R-12s, known to Americans as SS-4 missiles -- with one-megaton nuclear warheads and a flight range of 1,200 miles, meaning each could reach Washington, DC. Victor told me that they had decided to launch the missiles if the Americans attacked their positions from the air. "Technically, we could do it," he said. "And we would have launched these missiles -- if, of course, we had time for this during the air attack."

We in the Ural forests knew nothing about how rapidly the events had developed in Cuba. We did not know that a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the island and its pilot killed. But on this "Black Saturday," October 27, 1962, we all felt physically that the world was on the brink of the abyss.

I went with the telegraph tape in hand to the lieutenant-colonel on duty in the main room of the command post. "You know what the 'Brontosaurus' signal means?" I asked him. The officer took the tape and said, "Yes." His hands were trembling. In the command and control language, switching to wartime radio frequencies meant the beginning of war. Although the missiles were not fired yet, and they were not even fueled, for all the people at the division command post, a real war had already begun.

It is still not erased from my memory, this picture at the command post, the faces of those officers, soldiers, girl operators. What did they think and feel? How were they going to act? Because it was not one of the ordinary exercises in which they had participated many times before. Now, it was the very thing for which all of these exercises had been held. I saw in the eyes of those people a mixture of astonishment and a kind of detachment. "Is this really happening? It cannot be," those eyes seemed to say. And, at the same time, there was the desperate look of despair: "To hell with it! Be that as it may!"

Despair does not help in any business, especially when the business deals with nuclear war. Fortunately, the politicians did not succumb to despair. They were able to agree. Nuclear missiles were not launched, and the world survived. And we were all grateful for the intelligence and endurance of our colleagues in Cuba. They had the hardest job.

I came back to the Kirov rocket corps headquarters with a ravaged soul. Within a few days, I became a different person. The crisis had been a sobering experience; a former romantic of the rocket profession had been transformed by the realization that a nuclear war is not some sort of abstraction. It is a very real thing, and we avoided it only by a miracle. "Thank you, Victor," I thought, "and all you guys in Cuba!"

But why only thank the Russians? The Americans' endurance was no less important. Thank them also, of course. More and more, I come back in thought to the simple truth that we can keep the nuclear monster at bay only by working together with potential enemies. There is no other way.

And one more observation that seems important to me now for the analysis of the events of those distant 13 days: It is possible that the world was saved in 1962 largely due to the imperfection at that time of missile technology. The fact that the missiles of that era required many hours of preparation to launch provided a sufficient time buffer for politicians to think. Khrushchev and Kennedy had time to agree.

Unfortunately, half a century after the Cuban crisis, the situation is quite different. On both sides of the Atlantic, hundreds of more sophisticated nuclear missiles are on duty, in readiness for launch a minute or two after receiving the order. Americans call such a state "hair trigger." A human error, or technical defect, or terrorist sabotage -- and the world will be plunged into a nuclear catastrophe. The best legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis would be action to reduce this real threat, and then to remove it.