Early Life and Education
Arkhipov was born into a peasant family near Moscow. He was educated in the Pacific Higher Naval School and participated in the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945, serving aboard a minesweeper. He transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School and graduated in 1947. He served in the submarine service aboard boats in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets.
In July 1961, Arkhipov was appointed deputy commander or executive officer of the new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19 During its nuclear accident, he backed Captain Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev during the potential mutiny. While assisting with engineering work to deal with the overheating reactor, he was exposed to a harmful level of radiation. This incident is depicted in the American film K-19: The Widowmaker.
Involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis
On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, so those on board did not know whether war had broken out. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
Three officers on board the submarine – Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov – were authorized to launch the torpedo if agreeing unanimously in favor of doing so. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch. Although Arkhipov was only second-in-command of submarine B-59, he was actually commander of the flotilla of submarines, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, and of equal rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's K-19 incident also helped him prevail in the debate. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. This presumably averted the nuclear warfare which could possibly have ensued had the torpedo been fired. The submarine's batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, so it was forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and head home. Washington's message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarines to surface never reached B-59, and Moscow claims it has no record of receiving it either.
When discussing the Cuban missile crisis in 2002, Robert McNamara, who was U.S. Secretary of Defense during the crisis, stated that "we came very close" to nuclear war, "closer than we knew at the time."
In Aleksandr Mozgovoy's 2002 book, Kubinskaya Samba Kvarteta Fokstrotov (Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartet), retired Commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, a participant in the events, presents them less dramatically, saying that Captain Savitsky had merely lost his temper, but eventually calmed down.
Later Life and Death
Arkhipov continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid 1980s. He subsequently settled in Kupavna (incorporated into Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast, in 2004), where he died on 19 August 1998. The radiation to which he had been exposed in 1961 contributed to his death.