The West German Teenager Who Flew To Moscow Alone

“A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. [. . .] From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” —Winston Churchill, 1946

In A Nutshell

Mathias Rust was a 19-year-old with big dreams. This West German wanted to “build an imaginary bridge between West and East” and help make the world a better place. And what better way to end the Cold War than by flying a Cessna airplane straight into the heart of the Soviet Union?

The Whole Bushel

In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a little chat about nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the meeting hit a few snags, and everybody left in a huff, with the fate of the world still hanging in the balance. And that’s when Mathias Rust knew what he had to do.

Rust was a 19-year-old West German teenager who saw the summit fall apart on TV. Desperate to make the world a better place, Rust decided he’d “build an imaginary bridge between West and East . . . to improve relations between our worlds.” So how exactly would he connect the Cold War powers? Why, with an airplane, of course.

The plan was simple—and incredibly dangerous. Armed with only a pilot’s license and 50 hours of airtime, Rust would crawl into a Cessna plane, fly all the way to Moscow, and land in Red Square. Surely, his symbolic gesture would inspire Westerners and Easterners to view each other with respect, to see that they weren’t really all that different from each other.

After telling his parents he was going to check out northern Europe, Rust took off on May 13, 1987. He eventually wound up in Helsinki, Finland, where he spent several days reconsidering his insane plan. Rust knew full well the Soviets had the biggest and baddest air defense system on the planet. They also had really itchy trigger fingers. Back in 1983, they shot a South Korean passenger jet out of the sky, killing everybody on board.

Of course, fortune favors the bold, and on May 28, Rust climbed back into his Cessna and set his sights on Moscow. And just as he feared, the Soviets spotted him pretty much immediately and sent a MiG fighter jet to check him out. Luckily, fortune also favors the foolish. As it turns out, a Russian plane had recently crashed, and the fighter pilots mistook Rust for one of the rescue crew. Assuming he was a friendly, the MiG took off into the sky.

That was the last jet Rust saw his entire flight. No one else spotted him on radar, no one tried to shoot him down. Once again, fate was on his side. By pure happenstance, May 28 was Border Guard’s Day which meant all the border guards were busy partying instead of paying attention to their radar screens.

Finally, Rust flew right over Russia’s capital city and took aim for Red Square. Unfortunately, it was so packed with people—many of them stunned to see a Cessna flying overhead—that he had to quickly come up with a plan B. That’s when he spotted a bridge next to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Just moments later, he was skidding to a stop on Soviet territory.

Curious spectators crowded around the plane, wondering who the heck was crazy enough to fly into Moscow. Once Rust stepped out of the cockpit, he declared, “I am here on a peace mission from Germany.” And then just to clarify, he explained he was actually from “West” Germany. As you might expect, the crowd was absolutely stunned.

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The KGB was pretty incredulous, too. After hauling Rust to jail, they spent three weeks interrogating the kid, convinced this nutty 19-year-old was actually a spy. Eventually, officials finally bought Rust’s story, and some were even impressed at his youthful bravery. Of course, Rust wasn’t just free to go home either. The young man was charged with violating Soviet air space, endangering air traffic, and the rather odd crime of “hooliganism.”

Mathias Rust was sentenced to four years in a labor camp.

Fortunately for our hero, Rust didn’t serve much time in an actual labor camp. The teenager spent most of his days in a Moscow prison and was released after 14 months behind bars. Thanks to another round of negotiations, Reagan and Gorbachev successfully signed an intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty, and Rust’s freedom was part of the deal.

Gorbachev was probably only too happy to agree. After Rust slipped into the USSR unchallenged, the Soviet leader seized the moment and sacked over 150 officials who opposed his reforms. With these guys out of the way, Gorbachev was able to implement his glasnost and perestroika policies that eventually caused the USSR to collapse. So in a roundabout way, Mathias Rust really did help end the Cold War.

However, after Rust returned to his homeland, he didn’t exactly receive a hero’s welcome. When journalists asked for juicy details about his time in prison, Rust swore he was never mistreated or tortured. The precocious pilot further ticked off the press by walking away from an interview after landing in West Germany. According to Rust, this caused the media to turn on him, and soon newspapers were questioning his motives for flying to Russia, and reporters labeled him a selfish glory hound. Things got so bad that Rust even received a few death threats.

The insanity finally culminated when Rust snapped and attacked a nurse. Rust had a crush on the young woman, but when she turned him down, he stabbed her with a knife. Fortunately, the nurse survived, but Rust was sent to prison for two and a half years. This time, he wasn’t rescued by any treaty.

Today, Rust works as a financial analyst and yoga instructor. As to his infamous flight, his opinion seems to flip back and forth. In a BBC interview, he claims he has no regrets, but in a Guardian article, Rust describes his little trip as “irresponsible.” Either way, it was an incredibly crazy accomplishment, a preposterous peace mission that was equal parts luck, skill, and teenage naivete.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
This Day in History: Reagan and Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik
BBC News: Mathias Rust: German teenager who flew to Red Square
The Guardian: German who flew to Red Square during cold war admits it was irresponsible
Love and Radio: I, Sitting Beside Me

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