Most people have never heard of Vasili Arkhipov, but it’s quite likely we all owe our existence to him.
He was in the Soviet military during the Cold War. While serving aboard a submarine, he witnessed death and suffering from radiation during a nuclear accident. This had a profound impact on him.
He played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis that changed the world in ways the Americans were not even aware of until relatively recently when his deeds came to light.
The Americans didn’t know that some of the submarines they were dealing with during the Cuban Missile Crisis were armed with nukes.
The Soviets in these submarines were suffering extreme physical and mental deprivation that was affecting their judgement. They were overheated, dehydrated, exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide, going without food, and being bombarded by intimidation from the Americans, so they were pushed to their physical and mental breaking point. Not a good situation for making rational decisions no matter how good your training is.
Vasili Arkhipov was aboard one of the subs.
In order to launch a nuke, normally there were only two people who had to agree: The captain and the political officer. Arkhipov was in a unique position, because he was second-in-command on this submarine, but he was also commander of the fleet. This gave him a third-person veto power that didn’t exist on the other subs.
The captain and political officer aboard his sub decided to launch a nuke at the Americans. A nuke the Americans were not even aware existed — they didn’t know the subs were armed in this way. If the captain and political officer launched the nuke in the situation they were in, with the USA and USSR armed to the teeth, it’s likely that all-out nuclear war would have devastated most of the planet shortly thereafter.
Vasili Arkhipov remembered what radiation did to people. And he argued against using the nuke. He used the veto power he had. It took an argument. The captain still wanted to do it. But Vasili Arkhipov prevailed and we are all still here as a result.
For his efforts, by the way, he returned to the USSR in disgrace, being told he’d have been better off going down with his ship, and never talked about it due to shame and embarrassment.
Vasili Arkhipov’s story is dramatic. And now we know that he was one person standing in the way of all-out nuclear war.
What we don’t know is how many other times things like that happen, day after day, because someone decides to be the one person who says “No, this isn’t right.”
Probably the world has been saved many times over by the actions of people who will never understand the effects of their actions, and will never be recognized for them.
And even when it’s not on the scale of saving the world, being the one person who realizes the right thing to do and then does it can have a profound effect on the lives of other people.
Which means each of us has an obligation to try to be that person.
It doesn’t mean we’ll get it right.
It doesn’t mean we’ll know the effects of what we did.
It doesn’t mean we won’t be punished for our actions.
But it really is that important.
The developmental disability agency that provides me services seems to have a culture or policy that works against people doing the right thing when they see something wrong going on.
It works against them in many different ways. There are all kinds of pressures on people. To look the other way. To decide they aren’t responsible if they don’t do anything to help a situation. To assign all responsibility for the situation to other people and factors besides themselves. To not act. To not do the right thing. Even if their conscience is crying out that everything they are participating in is hurting people, and that they could step in and do something.
A lot of agencies have this kind of culture, office politics, whatever you want to call it.
But not all agencies have it in the same way or to the same extent.
I used to receive services from a developmental disability agency in California. There was a week where I wasn’t getting services. I ran into trouble rapidly with food, water, medication, hygiene, and everything else I couldn’t do.
I somehow dragged myself into their office, turned my communication device up as far as it would go, and say I hadn’t eaten or had water and wasn’t leaving until I did.
The head of the agency came out of nowhere, drove me home, cooked me meals, made sure I ate, made sure I got water, and cleaned my apartment.
I didn’t ask him to do this. He just saw there was a problem and stepped in to solve it.
That impulse to step in and do the right thing is a good impulse.
I have seen agencies that foster that attitude.
I have also seen agencies, like my current one, that do their best to suppress such pangs of conscience and their results, in their employees.
The thing is, even in an agency culture that tells you to look the other way, that it’s not your fault, that it’s an imperfect system failing someone and not in any way you as a part of it? You can still fight against that. You can still be a Vasili Arkhipov for someone. My agency sure as hell tries to blur the distinction between “We can’t do that for you” and “We refuse to do that for you,” but there is a distinction and it’s your responsibility to figure it out.
And if you do step in and do the right thing… you may not save the world from nuclear war, but you might save some people from needless suffering or even death.
And if you do that only once you’ll have had a major impact on the world for someone.
You can resist the pressure to pretend it’s not happening, pretend you have no responsibility, pretend it’s someone else’s problem. I have seen agencies move mountains to do things that my current agency flat-out refuses to do as a matter of course. I have also seen even individual workers within this current agency go out of their way to help people. They are often punished for their efforts But they know it is right so they do it.
All of us can take a lesson from Vasili Arkhipov.
All of us.
None of us is exempt from the good we are capable of doing. Nor the evil we can allow and excuse if we decide to turn the other way.
A smaller example:
Before seatbelt laws, my mom was part of a preschool committee for my brother. The committee ran by consensus. Meaning instead of a majority vote, everyone had to agree to something. There can be huge problems with consensus, but this is how it was run.
They were trying to make a decision about whether to make the kids were seatbelts on field trips. Everyone in the room decided not to make them wear seatbelts.
My mother stood up. She had worked on ambulances. She described the imprint of a baby’s head on a windshield in graphic detail.
Everyone changed their minds. The kids got seatbelts. Lives may have been saved. I grew up hearing that story, being told to always be that person if my conscience is yelling at me hard enough about something. I can’t say I always manage, but I can say I try.
Next time your conscience is screaming at you, listen to it. Listen hard. Then do whatever you can.
Today I Found Out has a good summary of Vasili Arkhipov’s role in saving the world, if you’re interested.
And remember you don’t have to be a commander of a submarine fleet or anyone special at all to stand up for what you believe in. And whether you save the world or not, you’ll still have an impact. And you’ll be able to live with yourself a lot more if your conscience is clear. J.K. Rowling emphasized in her Harry Potter series that there’s a choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. What Vasili Arkhipov did should be a wake-up call for all of us.
So here’s my challenge to everyone: Be Vasili Arkhipov for someone, sometime, and keep trying. You may never know what good you’ve done. This isn’t about feeling good about yourself, it’s not about recognition, it’s not about staying out of danger. It’s about doing your best to follow what you know in your bones to be the right thing, no matter what.
tl;dr: Listen to your conscience even — especially — when everything and everyone around you seems to be saying not to. You may never know the good you’ll do by doing so. You may never know the evil you might allow to happen if you don’t.