On May 28th 1987, at the age of 19, the German amateur pilot Mathias Rust landed his Cessna on Moscow's Red Square in front of the Kremlin. Without any military training, he'd managed to slip through the iron curtain, unnoticed by the Warsaw Pact's vast array of radar stations and air patrols. This embarassed the USSR a great deal, and Rust was put to trial and sentenced to 4 years in prison.

In the West, he became a celebrity, his flight was taken as a symbol for world peace and the act of a visionary free thinker. In the essay The Cyberpunk: The Individual as Reality, Timothy Leary mentioned him (together with Mark Twain and Christopher Columbus) as an example of a cyberpunk (which he defined as an exceptional individual who governs his own life).

Unfortunately, all this hype proved to be rather unfounded (or perhaps it was self-defeating). Rust was released after only 14 months, enjoyed his fame for a while, but then he stabbed a girl who had rejected him - prison again. Then he traveled to the USA and married a Polish woman, but they broke after short time. Rust returned to Russia to visit an orphanage for which he had become the patron. He disappeared for two years, worked as a shoe salesman. In 1996 he declared personal bankruptcy, unable to pay the fees for a lawsuit against a newspaper he'd lost 1991. A short time later, he announced that he would marry again, this time the daughter of a rich Indian tea merchant. Recently, he was fined for shoplifting in a department store in Hamburg.

A one man wrecking crew?

The date is May 28, 1987 and the Cold War is still raging. A young boy from the West Germany by the name of Mathias Rust, an 19 year old aspiring pilot, decides to take a little trip in a small single engine Cessna 172 aircraft that he had chartered from a flight club in Hamburg. Little did he know…

After bouncing around the Scandinavian skies for a while, Rust took off from Helsinki, Finland. It seemed he had no flight plan in mind or political agenda to achieve. Just out for a cruise. He somehow managed to enter Soviet airspace undetected and just kept on going. Four hundred miles later, he buzzed over Moscow, completed a few laps around Red Square and finally touched town a couple hundred or so yards away from the Kremlin.

Many people in the Square, both civilian and tourists alike didn’t know what to make of the situation. Many thought that an air show was being conducted and upon his landing, came over to greet the aviator.

Soviet authorities weren’t quite so impressed. They quickly apprehended him and brought charges against Mr. Rust that included illegal entry into the Soviet Union, violating internationally recognized rules of flight and something called “malicious hooliganism”. He was looking at a ten year stretch in a labor camp. Eventually, relations between West Germany and the Soviet Union became strained over the matter with each side doing a bit of posturing and grandstanding. Rust initially agreed to plead guilty to all three charges but then withdrew his plea and tried to claim he was on a peace mission. The Soviet court rejected his claim and he was found guilty of all three charges.

For his efforts, Rust was sentenced to serve a four year sentence for the “malicious hooliganism”, a three year concurrent sentence for the illegal entry and two a two year sentence for the flight rules violations. There was no appeal process. He was later released after serving about eighteen months.

There was a larger impact though. When world spread of this little incident, the Soviet Union was the butt of many jokes in the worldwide community. Apparently, a “one man invasion” of the country couldn’t and wouldn’t be tolerated. The Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev responded quickly. The Soviet minister of defense was immediately canned (hello Siberia!) and the military was called into question about their ability to protect the Soviet borders. This was in stark contrast to events four years earlier when Korean Air Flight 007 was blown out of the sky when it too “invaded” Soviet airspace and they were called on the carpet of world opinion about their overblown response.

The irony of the whole situation is further compounded when you consider the date and the timing of Mr. Rust’s little trip. For you see, inside the old Soviet Union, May 28 was traditionally known as Border Guards Day.

Within three years of Mr. Rust’s flight, the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down and the Soviet Union would begin to disband. I’m not saying his little trip precipitated those events but maybe it could serve as an indicator about just how much disarray the country was in at the time.



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