Postponed Apocalypse – on Cold War, Babylon Burning, epic chess sets


When I was a teenager, during the Cold War, I took basic training on how to deal with the nuclear apocalypse that we expected.

This was an annual civil defense seminar for community leaders. And although the only community leader in our house was my father, a county councilor, he was never too fond of sitting in classrooms, so delegated this job to me.

This is how I learned to deal with nuclear fallout, most likely as a result of an attack on our neighbors in the UK. Much of it was simple conservation: stacking sandbags against the exterior walls of the house, then retreating to the safest room with a good supply of food and family pets (in case where you had to eat them too).

Once the house was secured, you would periodically emerge and take measurements outside with a Geiger counter, which would have been emitted at the first sign of trouble. You would then call the numbers in Dublin, possibly someone in a bunker. My memories are a little vague now, to be honest (maybe I made up the part about pets). Unfortunately what I remember best is chicken and fries which we always had for lunch.

While we waited for the Cold War to get hot, the airwaves were a battleground for propaganda. It was the era of Radio Free Europe, still in existence and with a different focus, and Radio Moscow, which seemed to be all over the wireless, popping up repeatedly when you turned the dial.

Even the amp I bought with a used electric guitar around 1979 took over Radio Moscow. Every time I turned it on while trying to learn the chords of Babylon’s Burning, a punk classic of the time, I would hear the latest predictions of the impending end of Western capitalism.

There was then no escape from the great east-west conflict. Another battleground was chess. This had reached a climax in the fall of 1978, when in an epic world championship match that lasted four months, amid allegations of espionage, hypnosis and covert use of color-coded yogurt, Anatoly Karpov defeated Viktor Korchnoi 6-5.

Both men were Russians, but Karpov was the Soviet posterior while Korchnoi was a defector and darling of the West. I used to eagerly follow the games in the newspapers, sometimes playing tricks on a chessboard late at night when I couldn’t sleep.

Insomnia was common at the time. With the stress of being a community leader, the looming apocalypse, Babylon Burning, etc., I think I had sleeplessness for a while. Proxy playing a world championship chess match, itself a surrogate war, was a way to pass the nights.

The whole thing eventually vanished in a fairly harmless way. I never had my personal Geiger counter or had to worry about filling sandbags. And like many once dreaded things that didn’t happen, the temptation now is to think that it was never likely in the first place, that there were too many sane people on both sides.

But now I see that this weekend marks the 38th anniversary of something called “the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident of 1983”, which went unreported then or for many years afterwards.

This happened when, just after midnight on September 26, the USSR’s computerized early warning system reported the United States launching several intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fortunately, a man named Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet Air Force officer stationed at the command center where the warning was received, rightly suspected a false alarm and – in violation of orders – waited for more evidence before reporting it to those who had their hands on it. buttons.

No evidence has emerged. Petrov thus helped prevent retaliation for non-attack, which would likely have precipitated retaliation for retaliation, and possibly all-out war. Of course, when none of this has happened, again, the temptation is to think it couldn’t have been, because of the built-in safeguards.

But it was a time of intense mutual suspicion between the superpowers and when the Soviet Union was crumbling dangerously, as Chernobyl quickly demonstrated.

The 1983 incident was hushed up, and Petrov’s career did not flourish afterwards because he had exposed uncomfortable truths. Now dead, he at least lived to see himself the hero of an award-winning Danish documentary in 2013.

Made 30 years after the event and suggesting that some of us were closer than ever to receiving Geiger counters in the mail, it was called The Man Who Saved the World.


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