On this day in 1987, a West German teenager flew 400 miles across the Soviet Union in a small plane to land at the heart of what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire. He said he wanted to strike a blow for world peace, and, bizarrely enough, he succeeded.
Mathias Rust was a 19-year-old bank clerk in Hamburg when he got his idea to deliver a 20-page manifesto on world peace to Mikhail Gorbachev. He hoped that he could prove the good intentions of the Soviet Union, and thus help end the Cold War, by flying unmolested over its territory.
He started his odyssey by flying to Reykjavik, the site of the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit a few months earlier. Reagan’s rejection of Gorbachev’s offer to rid the world of nuclear weapons had depressed Rust, but then spurred him to action. After visiting the site of the conference, the young pilot flew to Helsinki, filed a fake flight plan for Stockholm, and set off southeastward on his adventure.
It was bold, but also crazy. Four years earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines jet that had wandered into their airspace, killing 269 people. Rust knew he might meet a similar fate. So he brought along a motorcycle helmet in case he needed to make an emergency landing.
The Soviets tracked Rust throughout his flight, but decided the plane must be “friendly.” No foreigner would be rash enough to fly through the Soviet Union, they believed. As it turned out, the legacy of the KAL disaster helped Rust: after 1983, Soviet officers were never supposed to shoot down a possible civilian aircraft except on orders from the highest military officials. And no one sought to alert those officials.
At about 1000 feet above the ground, Rust’s single-engine Cessna flew through the “Ring of Steel” around the world’s most heavily defended city and headed toward Red Square. Rust saw an opening on a bridge leading to the square and touched down between the wires. He taxied to a photogenic stop in front of the turrets and domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
At first, the people in the square thought it must be a movie crew, or perhaps Gorbachev’s private plane. But when the boy emerged, a crowd gathered to congratulate him. Soon, black sedans sped to the square, and men in dark suits emerged to confiscate cameras and take Rust away. But even the KGB seemed a little reluctant to condemn him. They reported that he seemed a little, well, crazy – not quite responsible for his actions. He was charged with illegal entry, illegal flying, and malicious hooliganism. He pled guilty only to the first two charges, because what was malicious about world peace? In the end, he spent about 14 months in prison.
The Soviet bloc was all about border controls (think the Berlin Wall). In fact, May 28 was the national day to honor Soviet border guards, though Rust did not know this. Gorbachev responded with the “Rust massacre”: he demoted or retired hundreds of officers, including the defense minister. Some Soviet officials complained that they could not win. “You criticize us for shooting down a plane, and now you criticize us for not shooting down a plane,” huffed a Soviet spokesman to the foreign press.
The incident may have shortened the life of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev used the crisis to purge the military of officers he believed were hostile to his reforms. Moreover, the stunt undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet state. The emperor, it appeared, had no clothes. It was difficult for the Soviet people to respect a totalitarian state that allowed a 19-year-old in a motorcycle helmet and a red aviator suit to float down to a national landmark with his message of peace.