The late Cold War – say, 1980 until the Wall fell – was a depressing time for the Soviet Union. The end of their crumbling system seemed inevitable, with Moscow run by aging party hardliners, an economy socked by the collapse of oil prices, and the entire country in a seemingly terminal torpor. Paired with the rebirth of American triumphalism and irrational exuberance under Reagan during that same time period, tensions between superpowers remained dangerously high. It needed some comic relief.

Almost exactly 24 years ago today, 18 year old West German (remember when that was a separate country?) Mathias Rust boarded a tiny Cessna not unlike the kind you see at small, rural airports everywhere in the U.S. As of May 28, 1987 Rust had exactly 49 hours of experience as a pilot. After a brief flight to Helsinki, Finland he refueled and took off with an announced destination of Stockholm, Sweden. Once airborne, the teenager turned his fabric-skinned plane toward the most hostile, heavily defended airspace on Earth, the Korean DMZ notwithstanding. Yes, Mathias Rust decided it would be fun to fly his Cessna to the Kremlin.

Soviet air defense officials began a Keystone Kops routine that, ahem, exposed some potential flaws in military preparedness. Three AA missile batteries tracked him but Soviet officers could not get an order to fire from a disorganized chain of command and balky communications system. Fighter jets were scrambled only to discover that a Mach 1.3 jet has a remarkably hard time engaging a plane the size of a Ford Fiesta (and traveling about as fast).

Several other air defense posts even assumed he was a Russian, given the similarity of his plane to a popular Soviet model used by farmers.

At 7:00 that evening, Rust circled Moscow.
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Abandoning his plan to land in the Kremlin he decided to go for maximum visibility – a landing in Red Square that Soviet leaders would not be able to pretend didn't happen. So he landed in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, calmly stepped out of his plane, and lit up a goddamn cigarette.

What Mathias Rust accomplished, aside from going for one hell of a joyride and giving himself the greatest "When I was your age, guess what I did?" story of all time, was to cut like a hilarious knife through one of the tension of the Cold War. Americans and Soviets alike expected the mighty Russian military colossus to be prepared for American bombers to come charging toward Moscow, yet in practice they reacted comically while some dork in a prop trainer flew for hundreds of miles over what was supposed to be impregnable airspace. Rust made the Cold War and the massive military apparatuses it produced on both sides look…

well, silly. It also accelerated the collapse of the USSR (according to the CIA) by giving Gorbachev an excuse to fire many of his hardliner opponents in the military.

Rust was convicted of, I shit you not, "hooliganism" and sentenced to four years of hard labor that he never served.
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He was released in 1988 after being detained in regular ol' prison sans hard labor. Ironically he ended up in German prison almost immediately – not for his stunt, but because he stabbed a nurse who rejected his request for a date. Upon release he became a Hindu "holy man" and was arrested repeatedly for shoplifting before resurfacing in 2009 as a professional poker player.

His later life sheds a little more light on the motives behind his daring flight…namely that he's a nut bar. When the tension gets dangerously high, sometimes a nut is exactly what the situation needs.

41 thoughts on “NPF: INFILTRATION”

  • I was a senior in HS when he pulled this off. And we were all, "DUUUUDE!!!"

    Man that seems so long ago, and the way the world was, back then.

    I heard Youth Group's cover of Alphaville's "Forever Young" this morning and I could only think that it loses its poignancy when they get to "…are you going to drop the bomb or not?"

  • I've read that one of the reasons that the Soviet air defence was so haphazzard was that he was flying the morning after a big national holiday to salute the brave border forces for keeping the capitalist menace at bay. I.e. they were all sleeping off the effects of the night before, barely at their posts, and nobody wanted to wake up their commanding colonel with news that a crop duster was passing through their sector. I've also seen it suggested that the timing of the event and some of the modifications made to the plane (it had an unusual second fuel tank installed) meant that Rust had some help from a western intelligence agency.

    The best late Cold War story had to do with the Farewell Dossier – which involved a double agent in the Soviet embassy in France, hacked computer code, a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline from Siberia, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded (so large it put NORAD on high alert until someone from the CIA could explain to them what was going on), and quite possibly the root cause of Gorbachev's rise to power.

  • Last Sunday was border guards day(judging by the number of drunk guys wearing border guard hats and uniforms and walking around town), and most of these professional holidays haven't been changed. So it is plausible. Also, nobody typically expects this kind of thing to happen- if they were focused on bombers they would have found bombers, not a Cessna.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "When the tension gets dangerously high, sometimes a nut is exactly what the situation needs."

    Yeah, I remember it well. I'm first generation Russian/Ukrainian, and I was shocked.
    Rust and that situation was great – and in that case he was the nut the world needed.

    Now, let's see what nuts the US has to offer now, in this tense time:
    The House Kings – Steve and Peter.
    Inhofe- who pulled his own flying stunt earlier this year – just not a funny one.

    And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In politics.
    In media:
    FOX News.
    Cup o' Schmoe Joe.
    CNN's entire "Worst Political Team on Television."
    Etc.,, etc., etc…

    Is it just me, or does this group NOT seem to provide the same harmless fun as Rust did back in the day?

  • I remember this clearly. I was fascinated by it when it happened. It really did play a role in accelerationg the demise of the Soviets.

  • I used to worry about Soviet air defenses until I realized that by the time I lumbered over there in my B-52 we'd have been lobbing ICBMs at each other for something like 16 hours.

    I'd have been pretty much digging the craters a little deeper.

  • A minor note. According to wikipedia, Rust flew a Cessna 172. Aluminum not fabric skinned.

    Nice flying regardless.

  • I was a child in Moscow at the time, and I remember this incident well. Psychologically, this was a shock and greatly tarnished the military's image in the eyes of the Soviet public — the downside of decades of self-aggrandizing propaganda with no mention of any problems, ever. Our neighbors were divided between those who saw this as the beginning of the end of the world (if you can't rely on the almighty totalitarian government to maintain existence itself, what are we to expect?) and those, mostly older people, who labeled Gorbachev a traitor for allowing the story to become public (because at the very least, you have to maintain the image of invincibility). I don't think it's a coincidence that the insurgency in Nagorny Karabakh, commencing the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, sprang up less than a year later.

  • Yup, he flew a skyhawk. And (obviously) it's significantly larger than a car.
    I remember hearing the excuses that the Soviet jets couldn't fight something slower, and realizing that "wow, adults tell stupid lies, too".

    But he's still nuts.

  • Major Kong says:

    Actually trying to intercept something like a Cessna 172 with say an SU-15 or Mig-23 would be extremely difficult. The top speed of the Cessna would be slower than the stall speed of the interceptor, even with landing flaps deployed.

    I instructed in T-38s, which are pretty comparable to a Mig-21 in performance. A T-38 would start falling out of the sky around 150 knots.

    There were instances in the Korean war where jet fighters stalled and spun in while trying to shoot down low/slow "bed-check Charlies" flying PO-2 biplanes.

    A helicopter gunship would actually be a better choice to intercept something like a Cessna.

    In case you're wondering "If Cessnas are so hard to shoot down then why don't we use them as bombers?" – It's because they can't go very far and they can't carry very much.

  • Ah, that picture is priceless. I vaguely remember that happening, but was too young to understand the ramifications. Thanks for the refresher.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    I was already old in 1980 and remember it well. As funny as it was, there was nothing funny about the Russians and their surrounding occupied countries. At my summer stay half a mile from the fallen Berlin Wall, the horrors are still clear. Same goes to the non clowns clownish GOP politburo. It's us with pants at the ankles.

  • The end of their crumbling system seemed inevitable

    Did it? I'm about your age and I'm quite sure that the collapse took pretty much everyone by surprise. It was the result of tremendous luck and tremendous bravery (on the part of people who are now completely ignored).

  • Major Kong says:

    One reason it took everybody by surprise was that the CIA and the Pentagon always greatly overestimated their capabilities – both economically and militarily.

    It's a lot easier to scream for increased defense appropriations when you make your opponent look 10 feet tall.

  • The problem with the Soviet centralized economy and regulated currency was that no one had any clue as to what anything actually cost (except for imports paid in "hard" currencies). Thus, the Soviet Union effectively went broke.

    During the days of the second Russion Revolution (with Boris Yeltsin & crew), I recall videos of army units rolling into Moscow with windshield wipers containing no wiper blades. Had it been raining, they wouldn't have been able to drive.

    And re: Yeltsin: Yes, he was a drunk and a horrid first president of the Russian Republic, and he held back much progress that could have been made in those years. Still, who else would have had the cojones (sp?) to face down the Russian army in front of their white house (parliament building) but a politico who was also a drunk? Methinks poor Boris is underappreciated.

  • You want to hear an even wackier story than that? Once upon a time the world's foremost and at the time only superpower had military bases and various early warning systems all over the world, along with a super high-tech advanced air-defense system to prevent bombers from entering its airspace. Then 19 determined guys managed to thwart all this simply by using civilian airliners from within that system. We all know what the result was. No, I'm not claiming it was a conspiracy, I'm merely pointing out that this bizarre case of Rust didn't hasten the fall of the Soviet Union, nor did it show that the whole Soviet air defense system was worthless. It was designed to find bombers, not small private planes, the last thing they would be looking for.

    Shit like this happens all the time in military history. The 'impregnable' fortress of Eban Emael in Belgium was really taken by about twelve paratroopers who managed to land on the roof of the thing. Perhaps more miraculous was the escape of Mikhail Devyatayev, who with about 9-10 other fellow POWs, managed to over power some guards, take control of a Henikel 111 bomber, take off, evade German fighters, and land behind Soviet lines.

    In short- interesting historical moment? Yes. Embarrassing, definitely. Responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union? No. To say so is the 1980s equivalent of attributing Middle East uprisings to Twitter. In fact I've already become convinced that the Bolshevik Revolution is a hoax now. How can you have a revolution WITHOUT TWITTER AND FACEBOOK?

    Ok, now about this…

    "And re: Yeltsin: Yes, he was a drunk and a horrid first president of the Russian Republic, and he held back much progress that could have been made in those years. Still, who else would have had the cojones (sp?) to face down the Russian army in front of their white house (parliament building) but a politico who was also a drunk? Methinks poor Boris is underappreciated."

    Held back much progress? No, Yeltsin and his buddies hopped into a bulldozer and PUSHED the country back. Russia has never had a democratic election and probably never will. Yeltsin by the way, ordered that same army to fire on the white house. If you are ever in Moscow I suggest you find the memorial to the victims of October 1993 which is subtly located just beyond the white house grounds. There you will find the faces of people who were killed. Among them were several children and teenagers- girls and boys. There was also one American citizen, Terry Michael Duncan, who died near Ostankino as he attempted to carry wounded Russians to safety.

    Remember this not only when you think of Yeltsin(who after that turned his bloodied army toward the Caucasus after telling the ASSRs to "take as much sovereignty as they wanted"), but also when you see that spotted dick Gorbachev.

    I regret that Yeltsin died of natural causes. It would have been hilarious to watch that confused look on his face as he stood against the wall where he would meet Ceausescu's fate. Gorbachev's still game though.

  • On second thought I can't figure out how the Soviet Union managed to collapse without the aid of Twitter and Facebook. How the hell does any major political change happen without thousands of ignorant westerners changing their profile pic special for you?

  • "The problem with the Soviet centralized economy and regulated currency was that no one had any clue as to what anything actually cost (except for imports paid in "hard" currencies). Thus, the Soviet Union effectively went broke."

    For the record, the main problem was that the economy was centralized on paper, but horrible decentralized in the real world. Imagine various capitalist firms which are not able to freely communicate and mingle in the market in order to get the raw materials they need and then get their products to suppliers. The sad state of affairs dates beck to a reform introduced by Khruschev which effectively made the central planning authority(GOSPLAN) non-existent. It was later brought back but it had virtually no bearing on production. During that time when the central planning bureau wasn't functioning, enterprises found themselves cut off from suppliers and customers. In many cases the directors had literally no idea who to call to ask about supplies. It was precisely this which led to the rise of "Tolkachi" or "pushers" who were basically middle-men who knew how to get things. This laid the foundation for a second economy which had profound effects by the time of Gorbachev.

    As for the calculation of the value of goods in the USSR, I don't remember the exact method(it's covered at length in W.P. Cockshott's Toward the New Socialism IIRC, among other works), but it was basically something akin to adding up the price of inputs of a particular individual good and then pricing it accordingly. So if something used a lot of resources, it was more expensive. During the Stalin era, when production was based on the five-year-plan and what was needed, this wasn't such a bad method of calculation. But beginning with Khruschev it was determined that enterprises should start turning a profit(yes, they used this word), and that they would be evaluated on the basis of profit(which would determine what kind of funding and support they would get). What this effectively meant is that now you had an incentive to use MORE resources(or at least not economize their use) per product, because this meant a higher price per product and thus a higher profit for the enterprise. This would lead to bigger bonuses for directors, plus more favors from the state for their particular enterprise.

    So contrary to the common belief that the USSR followed some radical utopian Marxist theory which just can't work in the real world, thus leading to a collapse, the reality is that when they made the most effort to follow Marx and Engels theories, they succeeded economically and politically. But then they embarked upon a path whereby the created what was essentially a capitalist economy, without the key mechanisms which allow capitalism to function. This is a recipe for disaster. If one is going to find an alternative to capitalism, you have to stick to that altenrative and move in that direction however gradual that might be.

    I fear that the misinterpretation of events surrounding real-world socialism of the 20th century is having a devastating effect on the left of the world, because the general idea is that those movements failed because they were too radical or not realistic enough, when in fact they were often not radical enough, or at least they didn't stick to the road they were on. As a result you have "theories" like Venezuela's "21st Century socialism", which sounds little more than 20th century liberal platitudes and pacifism. By seeing Marxism as something inherently too radical or utopian, leftists are tacitly accepting capitalism as a given, eternal thing, and thus any talk of its elimination must be stricken from political activism.

  • I remember reading a paper in Science, of all places, in the mid-80s pointing out that the USSR, as an empire, had been running in the red since the mid-70s. As George Orwell pointed out, an empire is a money making enterprise. If it stops making money, it falls apart. Most people knew this. President Carter tried to tighten the screws in the late 70s by refusing to sell wheat to the USSR, and caught no end of flak for it. President Reagan knew better than to antagonize the farmers (or try to balance the budget a la Carter) and used the Soviet nemesis as an excuse to build a 600 ship navy and pour countless billions down the defense rat hole. Judging from the Kremlin's reaction, this was the only thing holding the Soviet Union together. Who can forget Chernenko's "invincible might of the Soviet Army" speech to the Politburo? He was in a time warp, still fighting The Great Patriotic War.

    Rust's flight was a shock. Ronald Reagan seemed to be the last true believer in the Worker's Paradise. The last one in the USSR died some time in the 70s. His administration was cranking out fantastic stories about amazing Soviet attack and defense systems. Their tanks were ready for gas warfare. Their missiles were more powerful and more accurate than ours. Their submarines were slient and invisible. So, when some oddball in a single engine civilian plane casually flew out of Helsinki and landed in Red Square both the Soviets and the US were shocked. After all, they had shot down KAL flight 007 just a few years before with barely a fuss. The Soviets had their own reasons for shock, but we Americans had a grand wall of propaganda suddenly debunked to deal with. Why didn't they shoot him down with that LePage glue gun they got from the Nazis? (That was a WWII joke. Ask a veteran pilot if you can still find one.)

    I don't think Rust brought down the Soviet Union, but he did cause some serious rethinking on both sides of the iron curtain, as both sides had built up a myth of Soviet power weirdly time warped into the 1940s as if watching old WWII movies in some kind of exhausted stupor. For goodness sake, the US was building new battleships! Did we also need trebuchets or musketeers? Rust was an undeniable data point, a reality check. These are all too rare in world history.

    (No, it wasn't the fax machine that brought down the Soviet Union either, though it did play a role as a new medium that had not yet been successfully countered by the Soviet regime. Typewriters and carbon paper were registered and identified in the Soviet Union, just as laser printers are in the west today, and good luck getting access to a copier. It was actually hurting Soviet research efforts. Still, an awful lot of the news coverage coming out of the collapsing empire came in facsimile form, and Interfax is still around, though I doubt they use all that many fax machines these days.)

  • @Kong…I'm familiar with flying, but not with air combat. Are you saying that your speed must approximate the speed of the target to be successful? That seems wrong, on its face. Couldn't you just shoot it down from a greater distance?

  • The rise of a "Soviet army"(until 1946 it never bore that name) was one of the political factors which led to the break down, partially because they did get so much priority when it came to spending. A conventional modern army is a necessary evil; even in the Russian Civil War era it was clear that you needed some kind of standing army in order to utilize the new weapons of that era. But neither Engels nor Lenin(neither did Stalin, but he acted out of perceived necessity of the times) envisioned the "armed proletariat" as being simply a conventional military along the lines of something a bourgeois capitalist state would have.

    What Vietnam and a number of other insurgent movements proved in the Cold War was that conventional weapons weren't exactly as necessary for defense as previously believed. Vietnam was successful because there was an attitude that defense was that it was everyone's responsibility, from adolescents to old people. Most people here would be immediately reminded of the US-Vietnam conflict, but a more instructive example could be seen in the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979. China took 20,000 casualties in the space of about two weeks, not at the hands of the NVA but local village defense militias. Needless to say, arming and training most of your population is a lot cheaper than building multiple nuclear warheads you hope you'll never use, among other high-dollar items.

    But alas, by the time of Khruschev's economic reforms, the CPSU was not about to hand out guns en masse to the workers as the Albanians or Cubans did.

  • @hazy davy

    It's difficult for a fighter to attack a small, slow-moving target.

    1. It has a small radar signature and it's moving so slowly that a pulse-doppler type radar may actually filter it out as ground clutter.

    2. It has a small IR signature because there's no super-hot jet engine or jet exhaust so you may not get a heat seeker to lock on. Especially an early Soviet heat seeker like an AA-2.

    3. That pretty much leaves a gun engagement. Assuming your plane is equipped with guns, which some Soviet interceptors were not. The ones that did tended to have slow-firing large-caliber cannons, great for putting a big hole in a bomber but hard to get a hit with.

    Most fighter planes of that era liked to fly in the 300-400 knot range. Keep in mind we're talking about something like an SU-15 (equivalent to an F-106) or a Mig-23 (F-4 equivalent) not a modern F-15 or F-16, which have much better slow-speed handling. At 200 knots they're mushing through the air and have trouble maneuvering, yet still have 100+ knots of closure on the Cessna, which is a LOT. That would be a pretty difficult gun kill.

    A helicopter gunship could easily overtake with 30-50 knots of closure, match his speed, and maneuver better in that speed envelope.

  • I think once you actually made visual contact and realized that it was a Cessna, the powers that be would prefer to no to destroy it and take the pilot alive. They were probably hoping for a spy or something.

  • During the KAL 007 shootdown, the SU-15 interceptor was at one point locked on for a missile shot.

    Purely by coincidence, the 747s autopilot reached a programmed waypoint and started a standard 30-degree banked turn towards the next waypoint. This caused the SU-15s radar to break lock and he had to manuever around to set up for another shot.

    My instructors in SAC would use this anecdote to teach us that an encounter with a missile-armed Soviet fighter was indeed survivable.

  • Out of curiosity, is it possible that this maneuver might have convinced the pilot of the SU-15 that KAL 007 was taking evasive action? Or did the pilot have visual contact? I'm not sure the USSR(or anyone for that matter) had beyond-the-visual-horizon missiles at that time.

  • Major Kong says:

    Normally a radar breaks lock when you maneuver beyond the limits to which the antenna can gimbal (move on its mounts). The radar has to continuously "paint" the target for a missile like an AA-3 or AIM-7 to guide. The missile follows the radar energy that is being bounced off the target.

    Soviet radars of that time frame weren't very good.

    What stands out is that a 30-degree standard rate turn is hardly an evasive maneuver and a civilian airliner has no electronic countermeasures.

    In a B-52 we'd have been jamming, dropping chaff, diving for the dirt and maneuvering violently.

  • If you listen to the transcripts from the KAL007 incident they knew goddamn well it was a civilian airliner. I don't point that out to get on a high horse, as the exact same thing can be said of Iran Air 655.

  • Arslan and Kong,

    You guys are overlooking the obvious. Why couldn't someone take off in another Cessna (or perhaps a Baron) and shoot him down with a regular old gun?

  • Major Kong says:

    Depends. If they guy in the Cessna knows you're there and trying to shoot him it would be pretty tough. A Cessna isn't very fast but it can pretty much turn in its own length.

  • I'm hoping that was a joke. Besides, if it really seemed like such a threat the best thing to do would be to maybe use an attack helicopter as some have already suggested, or try to project its path and get someone out there with a few man-portable SAMs.

  • I was in pilot training myself at the time.

    A small correction: C-152's have aluminum skin, not fabric.

  • Oh, and the only time a 152 can "turn in it's own length" is when it's taxiing and you lock one wheel brake.

    If I was flying a jet, wanted to take down a 152, and none of my weapons would engage him, I'd think a close high-speed pass from behind, passing one wingtip over his centerline would be good enough to give him a severe wake-turbulence upset.

  • BarsMonster says:

    @Major Kong
    Sorry to disappoint you, but most of modern radars in USSR & Russia were/are phased arrays with electronic scanning => no limits on target speed.

  • Simon Hibbs says:

    Try that stunt with North Korea and see what happens.

    To me at the time this incident actually humanised the Soviets. It showed that they were just people too, and that despite how ruthless they could be, they were also capable of hesitating before blowing away a potential threat. Yes it revealed weaknesses in their military machine, but they were very human weaknesses that in this case helped avoid a needless loss of life.

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