Childhood & Early Life
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was born on January 30, 1926, in the town of Staraya Kupavna, near Moscow, into a peasant family. At the age of 16, he enrolled into Pacific Higher Naval School.
While attending school, he participated in the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945, during which he served aboard a minesweeper. He later transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School, from where he graduated in 1947.
Immediately after completing his graduation, he joined the Russian Navy. He initially served abroad submarines in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets.
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In 1961, Vasili Arkhipov assumed the position of deputy commander of the new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19. As a result, he also acted as the executive officer of the vessel.
The crew of the submarine was entrusted with the task of conducting exercises off the south-east coast of Greenland, when an extreme leak in the reactor coolant system of the submarine was detected. On July 4, 1961, the leak eventually caused cooling system failure and also damaged the radio communications systems.
With no backup cooling system and communications to Moscow lost, Commander Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev ordered the entire engineering crew of seven members to come up with a solution to avoid nuclear meltdown. While this required them to work in high radiation levels for extended periods, Arkhipov helped prevent a mutiny within the crew.
The engineering team was able to prevent the reactor from a meltdown by designing a secondary cooling system. While the crew survived, they were all exposed to high levels of radiation.
Exposure to high radiation caused the deaths of all the member of the engineering team, as well as their divisional officer, within a month of the incident. 15 more members of the crew died during the next two years, and Arkhipov later developed kidney cancer, which will eventually cause his death.
Saving the World
Vasili Arkhipov was the commander of an entire submarine flotilla of four diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarines that was headed towards Cuba in October 1962, before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was abroad the submarine B-59, leading the flotilla, which also included B-4, B-36 and B-130 submarines.
The flotilla left the base on the Kola Peninsula on October 1, 1962, and was carrying nuclear weapons that the USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev had agreed to secretly place in Cuba. In early October, an US reconnaissance plane had already captured images of the Cuban missile launch site under construction, which led the US president John Kennedy to place a blockade around the entire island.
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Randolph and accompanying eleven US Navy destroyers patrolling the area detected suspicious activity and started to drop depth charges to signal the submarine to surface for identification. As the mission was a strictly secretive one, the commander of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided to further lower it to avoid detection.
The submarine had no contact with Moscow for days, and as it sunk further down, radio signal was faint, making it too difficult to monitor ongoing events. As a result, the crew had no idea if war had already began, and a confrontation ensued between the three commanding officers onboard.
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Captain Savitsky, thinking that the depth charges were indication of war, decided to launch the 10 kilotons nuclear torpedo that the submarine was equipped with, which the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov also supported. Fortunately, unlike most typical Russian submarines armed with the 'Special Weapon' that needed the captain to get authorization from the political officer, B-59 also needed flotilla commander Arkhipov's approval.
He argued that the depth charges were missing the submarine, and were also less explosive, which meant they were meant to signal them to surface. During the argument, Arkhipov, who had already gained reputation because of his courageous deeds onboard K-19, was able to successfully persuade the captain to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow.
To make things worse, the batteries of the submarine were almost drained, rendering the air-conditioning system to fail, which led to extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the vessel. Upon surfacing, no inspections were made, which is why it remained a secret for 40 years that the submarine was armed with nuclear weapons.
Ignoring the fact that a nuclear war had just been averted, USSR officials showed extreme disrespect towards the crew of the submarine for failing to keep the mission a secret. However, in 2002, after retired Commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, who was onboard the submarine, revealed the detailed of the incidents during a press conference, the media hailed the deceased Vasili Arkhipov as a savior.
He continued to serve in the Soviet Navy following the events, and was eventually promoted to the rank of rear admiral in 1975 and became the head of the Kirov Naval Academy. In 1981, he was further promoted to vice admiral and held that post till his retirement in the mid-1980s.
Personal Life & Legacy
Vasili Arkhipov was married to Olga Arkhipova, who later featured on the BBC documentary 'Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World' in 2012, describing him as intelligent, polite and very calm. The couple had a daughter named Yelena.
Following his retirement, he settled in Kupavna, where he died on August 19, 1998. He succumbed to kidney cancer, which resulted from his exposure to high level radiation in 1961.