The odds are exceptionally good that you’ve never been under the kind of pressure faced by Soviet submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov. While you likely haven’t heard of him, it is quite possible that you and everyone you’ve ever met owe him your lives.
Born in 1926, Arkhipov’s early life seemed unremarkable. Born into a poor family on the outskirts of Moscow, Arkhipov did what many Soviet men of his era did and joined the military. He became a Navy officer and served aboard a minesweeper in WW2.
After WW2, Arkhipov continued to serve in the Soviet Navy and would rise to the rank of deputy commander.
Fast-forward to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov found himself on a submarine. Now second in command, Arkhipov couldn’t have guessed what fate had in store for him. His B-59 submarine was based in Cuba and had 22 torpedoes. One of those torpedoes (and this is key to our story) had a nuclear warhead.
The U.S. had begun their naval blockade of Cuba, and the Soviet government knew of U.S. plans to drop practice depth charges. However, Arkhipov and his crew were too deep underwater to receive that information. When the depth charges started going off, the soviets aboard the submarine were unaware that it was just an exercise. They feared that they were under attack from U.S. forces above, and that a war had already begun. The two other ranking officers of the B-59 submarine prepared to fire a nuclear torpedo at the vessels. This would have been seen as an unprovoked nuclear attack by the soviets and undoubtedly would have triggered WW3.
In a truly legendary display of keeping calm under pressure, Arkhipov pushed back against the leaders on the ship. They needed all three officers to confirm an attack before firing on the enemy. He stated that they had to wait to hear more from Moscow.
Arkhipov’s line of reasoning was that the crew had not received communications from Moscow for a long period of time, and the smartest course of action was to remain calm. Staying cool and collected while depth charges were going off over his head must have been incredibly difficult. In his mind at the time, he must have felt like he was risking death. But taking a moment to assess the situation gave him the space he needed to make the right decision. Luckily that decision paid off. He very likely averted WW3 and prevented another costly global war.
The Director of the National Security Archive Thomas Blanton once noted, “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.” Eventually, Arkhipov was promoted to admiral, and he died in 1999.
Almost no one recognizes his name, but Vasili Arkhipov truly set the standard for what it means to stay calm under pressure. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, hopefully you’ll remember this story. If he could stay cool in the face of such danger to prevent disaster, you can handle what life is throwing at you. Insert a pause before you make a decision based on emotion, and you’ll see your life improve.