On May 28, 1987, an eighteen-year-old German pilot who barely knew how to fly helped topple the Soviet Union.
When Mathias Rust landed his Cessna in Red Square in Moscow, he set in motion of chain of events that contributed to the collapse of Communist rule.
In the spring of 1987, Rust was nothing more than a restless teenager with quixotic dreams of creating peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. Rust told a Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine interviewer in 2005 that he believed that if he could “pass through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted, it would show that Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West. How would Reagan continue to say it [the Soviet Union] was the ‘Empire of Evil’ if me, in a small aircraft, can go straight there and be unharmed?”
Rust had a pilot’s license, but only fifty hours of flying time. On May 13, he took off from Hamburg in a rented Cessna F172P equipped with extra fuel tanks. For two weeks he hopped across Northern Europe, including Iceland and Norway, before arriving in Finland (by then his flight experience had doubled to one-hundred hours).
On the morning of May 28, he filed a flight plan to fly from Helsinki to Stockholm. At 12:21 p.m., he took off on a course over the Baltic Sea. A few minutes into the flight, he turned on a course toward Moscow.
Though Rust turned off his transponder, he was still visible on radar to Finnish air traffic controllers. Rust ignored their queries. But still over the Baltic, the Cessna was detected by Soviet radar in Latvia just after 2 p.m. Moscow time.
As Rust entered Soviet airspace and made landfall over Estonia, flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet, Soviet air defenses went on alert. Surface-to-air missile batteries tracked him, but took no action because they lacked permission to fire. Two interceptor jets took off and made visual contact with the Cessna. “Peering through a hole in the low clouds, one of the pilots reported seeing an airplane that looked similar to a Yak-12, a single-engine, high-wing Soviet sports airplane that from a distance looks very similar to a Cessna,” according to writer Tom LeCompte in Air & Space Magazine. “The fighter pilot, or his commander on the ground, perhaps thinking the airplane must have had permission to be there, or didn’t pose any threat, decided the airplane did not require a closer inspection.”
More interceptors were launched, including a MiG-23 that circled the Cessna before eventually departing. At one point, a Soviet air defense headquarters assumed the intruder was just a Soviet student pilot who had forgotten to set his transponder. In another case, radar operators mistook the plane for a search-and-rescue helicopter. The fact that the Cessna was flying straight and level made it seem harmless, LeCompte points out. After all, wouldn't any intruder who dared to violate Soviet airspace take evasive action?
All this time, Rust felt detached, like he was on autopilot. “I had a sense of peace,” he said. “Everything was calm and in order.”
He remained calm even as his plane passed over the elaborate air defense network girding Moscow. But those defenses were designed to track and shoot down giant B-52s, not bite-sized Cessnas. Rust then searched for a landing spot in Moscow. Rust decided to land at the Kremlin, then wisely realized the KGB guards there might react a bit forcefully at the intrusion. So he settled on Red Square, only to discover there was too much traffic to land directly on it.
At about 7 p.m., Rust spotted a bridge over the Moscow River leading to Red Square. However, there were three sets of wires over the bridge. With remarkable dexterity for a rookie pilot, Rust passed over the first set, got his wheels on the ground, and then taxied under the other wires and into Red Square.
Rust expected that police or soldiers would immediately arrest him. Yet despite years of warnings about foreign spies and Western threats, when Muscovites discovered that Rust was a foreigner, they asked for his autograph. It wasn’t until an hour later that soldiers arrived to disperse the crowds and KGB agents arrested Rust, who described his treatment as quite friendly.
Nonetheless, he was charged with illegal entry, violating aviation law and malicious hooliganism. On June 4, 1987, he was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released on August 3, 1988, as a Soviet goodwill gesture toward the West.
At this point, Rust’s flight path veers into tragedy. He stabbed a female coworker in 1989, and served fifteen months in prison. He was later convicted of fraud, converted to Hinduism, and at various times became a self-described professional poker player, peace activist and investment banker.
Rust faded into a flaky footnote of history. But like a Cessna-borne butterfly effect, he helped set in motion a chain of events bigger than himself. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev was struggling to preserve the Soviet Union by reforming it, only to run into a roadblock of aging Cold War generals and bureaucrats.
Rust proved to be the battering ram. As a military failure, Rust’s landing was embarrassing but not catastrophic. Just like 9/11, the failure was more one of imagination. Who could conceive that someone would be crazy enough to fly across Russia and land on a Moscow street?
Nonetheless, one of the pillars of Soviet legitimacy was that the Communist regime could defend the state against invaders. Soviet citizens had to stand in line for bread and toilet paper because of the voracious Soviet defense budget. So how could a German teenager and his lumbering civilian aircraft blithely penetrate those expensive air defenses? What if that had been a B-52 or a stealth bomber?
Rust delivered a bigger black eye to the Soviet military’s reputation than any American spy plane could have. And Gorbachev wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. He fired his defense minister and air defense chief, as well as numerous other officers.
It was a crack in the wall that would eventually bring the Berlin Wall—and the Soviet Union itself—crashing down.
Image: St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow. Flickr