An aide to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Anatoly Cherniavev, said, “Imagine an incident like this happening before Gorbachev’s time. There would have been no dialogue. He would have simply been lined up against the wall and shot the next day.”
West German amature pilot Mathias Rust flew his Cessna F172P from Finland to Red Square in Moscow 26 years ago today, May 28, 1987. In doing so, Rust became another catalyst to help bring an end to the Cold War.
The 18 year old flyer began his tour on May 13th near Hamburg, (West) Germany. Rust had modified the rented plane by removing some of the seats and installing axillary fuel tanks. To build up motivation, he spent two weeks flying around Northern Europe. He spent time in the Faroe Islands, vacationed a week in Iceland, then on to Bergen, Norway.
He had also visited the conference site of the unsuccessful summit meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1986. It was when pondering this place Rust clinched his decision to try his piloting skills.
The morning of May 28th, he refueled the airplane at Helsinki and filed a flight plan saying his intention was to travel to Stockholm, Sweden. He took off at about 12:20PM and headed east, then switched off all the communications equipment in the plane. After he disappeared from radar, Finnish officials believed there was an emergency. There was an oil slick near the area the airplane had vanished from radar, so a search was conducted on the assumption there had been a crash. Of course, the search yielded no positive results.
In reality, Rust had crossed the Baltic Sea coast into Soviet airspace and adjusted his headings for Moscow. His plane appeared on defense radar but Rust didn’t respond to verification signals because his radios were turned off. Three fighter divisions scouted him but were not told to engage offensive action against the plane.
Rust apparently took a break before arriving at Moscow, because the Cessna dissappeared from radar. He may have taken time to eat and change his clothes. This was believed because too much time elapsed considering the weather conditions and the speed of the aircraft. After Rust reappeared on radar, there was much confusion amongst Soviet air officials. Eventually, he was classified as a domestic trainer inadvertently disobeying regulations, so he was given low priority.
About 7:00PM Rust arrived at central Moscow. He had originally planned to land inside the walls of the Kremlin but feared arrest by the KGB and official denial of the incident. So he changed his touchdown spot to Red Square. He managed to land on a bridge nearby Saint Basil’s Cathedral. After stopping near Red Square, he was hailed by curious Muscovites and autograph hounds. Two hours later, Mathias Rust was arrested.
After Rust’s September trial, He was convicted of breaching the Soviet borders, hooliganism, and disregard of aviation regulations. He was sentenced to four years at a labor camp. He didn’t get transfered to the labor camp, instead he was sent to a high security detention prison in Moscow.
Two months later, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. negotiated and signed a treaty to eliminate Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons in Europe. The Supreme Soviet ordered the release of Rust to the West in August 1988 as a goodwill gesture.
Much later, military experts said that Rust’s incursion into Soviet air space and landing in Red Square, irreparably damaged the credibility and reputation of Soviet military strength. It thus gave Mikhail Gorbachev a legitimate excuse to remove his reform adversaries from power.
Mathias Rust returned to his normal life in West Germany. His family had to pay fines and costs to Finland for the search and rescue efforts they initiated. He worked for awhile at a Rissen, Germany hospital. He fell in love with one of the nurses. She rejected his advances so he knifed her. He was convicted of attempted murder and served time in prison from 1991 until 1993. Later, Rust returned to Russia and worked as a shoe salesman in Moscow. He also had become a patron of an orphanage there. At last report, Rust was living with his second wife in Berlin.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Mathias Rust intended to create an imaginary bridge to the east to ease tensions on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He appeared to have done just that.