The lowest recorded air temperature at the surface of the Earth was a measurement of -89.2 degrees C made at Vostok station, Antarctica, at 0245 UT on 21 July 1983. Here we present the first detailed analysis of this event using meteorological reanalysis fields, in situ observations and satellite imagery. Surface temperatures at Vostok station in winter are highly variable on daily to interannual timescales as a result of the great sensitivity to intrusions of maritime air masses as Rossby wave activity changes around the continent. The record low temperature was measured following a near-linear cooling of over 30 K over a 10 day period from close to mean July temperatures. The event occurred because of five specific conditions that arose: (1) the temperature at the core of the midtropospheric vortex was at a near-record low value; (2) the center of the vortex moved close to the station; (3) an almost circular flow regime persisted around the station for a week resulting in very little warm air advection from lower latitudes; (4) surface wind speeds were low for the location; and (5) no cloud or diamond dust was reported above the station for a week, promoting the loss of heat to space via the emission of longwave radiation. We estimate that should a longer period of isolation occur the surface temperature at Vostok could drop to around -96 degrees C. The higher site of Dome Argus is typically 5-6 K colder than Vostok so has the potential to record an even lower temperature.