A Dubious Diplomat
20 Years Ago, a Young Pilot Took a Headlong Flight Into Cold War History

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.

By the time more jets were scrambled, Rust had vanished in the clouds, and generals on the ground continued to debate whether the blip on their screens was really a plane or just birds or a weather formation, according to later accounts.

"We will conclude that it was geese," said a commander in the national air defense system, brushing aside those who argued that the MiG's pilot could not have been mistaken.

Before leaving Germany, Rust had bought and studied a Moscow street map and looked at pictures of city landmarks. But, once in the sky over the capital, he found Moscow huge and confusing, he recalled. Rust first flew to the Foreign Ministry, a landmark skyscraper, before seeing the Kremlin towers and the nearby Hotel Rossiya.

He landed. "When I got out of the plane, there were about 200 people around me," he said. "When they saw I didn't speak Russian, some of them spoke English, and I told them I was on a mission of peace."

Rust spent more than an hour on Red Square, he said, before the KGB showed up. Some of the ordinary police and soldiers on the square didn't know what to make of him when he landed, he said. The KGB officers asked to see his passport and were at first bewildered that he had no visa, thinking he must have commandeered the plane inside Russia.

"I said I wanted to meet Gorbachev," Rust recalled. The KGB agents took him to a police station for interrogation.

Rust was later sentenced to four years in a Soviet labor camp for illegally entering the Soviet Union and hooliganism. He served 14 months in Moscow's Lefortovo prison before he was paroled.

"I was treated very well," he said, recalling that he shared a cell with an English-speaking prisoner.

In the years since his release, Rust has had a checkered life, still tilting at windmills and having run-ins with the law. He said he suffered psychological problems after his captivity.

In 1989, he served five months in prison in Germany for stabbing and wounding a woman who spurned his advances. Early this decade, he was convicted of theft and fraud.

An effort to create a research group that would help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came to naught.

Rust said that he invested money earned from his notoriety in property and other businesses and that he is now independently wealthy. He and a partner run an investment company in Estonia. He also plays high-stakes poker and says he walked away from one sitting of high rollers with $1 million in winnings.

Rust has returned to Russia once, for a three-week visit in 1994. But he has not met Gorbachev despite various efforts over the years.

The former Soviet leader, in East Germany when Rust landed by Red Square, described the event as a "national shame." Gorbachev quickly seized the opportunity to move against Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov and the commander of Soviet air defense forces, Alexander Koldunov.

"If I were you, I would resign at once," Gorbachev is said to have told Sokolov at an emergency Politburo meeting the day after Rust's flight.

"I made them look funny around the world, but I helped Gorbachev in some way," Rust said. "I only did it because of my love for peace."

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