A Dubious Diplomat

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 27, 2007

MOSCOW, May 26 The single-engine Cessna aircraft, flying just 10 yards off the ground, buzzed Red Square three times as the pilot looked for a place to land. But too many people were on the square that May evening. So the plane pulled up and circled the Kremlin walls before setting down on the nearby Moskvoretsky Bridge and taxiing to St. Basil's Cathedral to park.

Twenty years ago, Mathias Rust, a 19-year-old dreamer from West Germany, pierced the Soviet Union's air defenses on what seemed like a delusional mission to unite East and West. But in one of the Cold War's most iconic footnotes, he handed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev an excuse to purge his defense minister and other military hard-liners opposed to his glasnost reforms, an important step toward the fall of communism.

"When I look back, I am of two minds about what I did," said Rust, now a wealthy investor and high-stakes poker player who divides his time between Germany and the former Soviet republic of Estonia. "I caused myself a lot of problems, but it was my destiny and you have to live your destiny."

In 1987, Rust was upset over the continuing U.S.-Soviet standoff and deeply disappointed with the failure the previous year of the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. The two leaders had seemed on the verge of a historic breakthrough on nuclear arms control, but the talks collapsed at the last minute.

"I was full of dreams then, and I believed everything was possible," Rust said in a telephone interview from Hamburg, where he has an apartment. "My intention with the flight was to build a kind of imaginary bridge between East and West."

May 28 was, and still is, Border Guards Day. In Moscow's Gorky Park that day 20 years ago, border guards were whooping it up with vodka and songs. The geeky-looking teenager, however, was about to sober everyone up fast.

Rust, an avid amateur pilot, began his adventure in Helsinki. He filed a flight plan to Stockholm and took off, unsure whether he could go through with his plan. But 20 minutes into the flight, he switched off his communications equipment and turned east. Finnish traffic controllers feared he had crashed.

"The whole flight I was in a trance; it was like an out-of-body experience," he said. "I remember flying over a beach in Estonia. And I said to myself, 'I'm in the Soviet Union now.' "

Moscow was 400 miles away, but a series of fortunate events kept Rust headed in its direction.

A MiG-23 interceptor jet was scrambled and came so close, Rust said, that he could see the helmet and oxygen mask over the pilot's face and the red star on the plane.

"I was very scared at that moment, because I didn't know what they would do," Rust said. "But when I set out, I didn't believe they would shoot me down. I thought maybe they would force me to land before I got to Moscow." In 1983, the Soviets shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747, killing 269 people; Rust believed that that experience, which had outraged the world, would make the Soviet air force reluctant to fire on him.

The pilot who approached Rust's aircraft reported spotting a "sports plane" under the clouds, but senior officers on the ground argued over whether that was possible. There were no private planes in the Soviet Union.

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