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

You probably don't recognize his face, but he's likely the reason you're alive.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockSep 26 2022, 16:20 UTC
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A black and white photo of naval officer Arkhipov.
The story of his heroism was suppressed for over 40 years. Image credit:

A new opera is to tell the story of a soviet naval officer who, in 1962, narrowly prevented the world from entering a nuclear war. Vasili Arkhipov was born into a peasant family near Moscow in 1926. After serving as a minesweeper in World War II, he began working aboard Soviet submarines in 1947, rising through the ranks before helping to prevent a mutiny on a nuclear submarine when there was a problem with its nuclear reactor. 

Due to the incident, eight crew members we killed and Arkhipov himself became sick with radiation poisoning, receiving a dose that would eventually lead to his death in 1998. To most people, that would be enough incident for one lifetime, but for Arkhipov that was just a footnote in his life's story; as he would go on to single-handedly prevent World War III.

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Arkhipov was serving as second in command on the Soviet B-59 nuclear submarine at the time of the missile crisis. After the US ordered a naval blockade around Cuba, the navy began to drop depth charges on Soviet submarines in order to force them to surface. The Soviets had been warned ahead of the non-lethal charges being dropped, but this hadn't been conveyed to the commanders of its submarines in the area. This lack of communication led to the captain of the B-59, upon seeing charges being dropped at his vessel, concluding that World War III had broken out, as they were clearly being attacked.

Captain Vitali Savitsky ordered that the submarine's 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo be prepared, ready to launch at a US aircraft carrier, sending fallout towards land. If the nuclear torpedo had been launched, or any of the rest of the submarine's nuclear arsenal, it would likely have led to retaliation and – given the tension of that moment in history – nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, especially if the US believed the command to fire had come from the Kremlin itself.

In order to fire the missile, however, the process required the captain, the ship's political officer, and Arkhipov to agree to the launch. Arkhipov was the only one of the three men who argued against launching nuclear weapons. After a long argument, he was able to convince the others not to launch, and instead surface the vessel and request further orders from the Kremlin.

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The opera – named ARKHIPOV – goes through the story of the incident "from the initial excitement and camaraderie of the submariners through their increasing deprivation, to a tortured state in which a decision to destroy the world seems almost logical".


The opera is set to run October 21 and 22 at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles.


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