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. 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. 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.