A quarter of a century ago, 18-year-old Mathias Rust was hoping for an audience with Gorbachev, but it was the middle of the Cold War and he ended up in a Soviet jail. Now, although he talks of liking to push personal limits, he says he would not try such a stunt again.
Now 43, Rust told Russian mass-circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda he flew to Moscow across the Iron Curtain because he wanted the Cold War to be over.
“I wanted to leave a message for humankind which I did,” he said.
“I wanted to take an active part in perestroika and was hoping Gorbachev would make me part of this movement,” Rust said, referring to the reform process launched by the last Soviet leader. “And I believe I sped up perestroika a little bit.”
“For me the most important thing was to fly down to Moscow and give the world my message. Looking back I still think I’ve won because I’ve done what no-one expected,” he said, adding he was lucky the Soviet forces did not shoot him down.
How the teenager was able to cross into the heavily guarded Soviet airspace and land the small plane without being shot down is a mystery still to this day. The flight became legendary.
“Nobody could believe back than that of all things on the ‘Day of the Border Guards’ that a young, inexperienced pilot could penetrate to the heart of the heavily armed country,” said Vladislav Belov, director of the Centre for German Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
May 28 was the “Day of the Border Guards”, which as the name implies, was a day celebrating the soldiers guarding the country’s borders.
One of the most popular conspiracy theories till this day says the landing was orchestrated by Gorbachev in order to purge Communist hardliners from the military.
The Soviet leader used the failure of the air force to prevent Rust from entering Soviet airspace for an unprecedented firing of some 300 Army officers – as well as Defence Minister Sergei Solokov.
Rust flew the rented Cessna to Moscow on what he would later describe as a “peace mission.” He was fascinated by the idea of a rapprochement between the two sides of the Cold War.
The KGB was less than thrilled and Rust was apprehended in Red Square, interrogated by the secret police and sentenced to four years in jail. He served 432 days before being allowed to return to his parents’ house in Wedel near Hamburg.
Today Rust is 43 and works as a financial analyst for a Swiss firm, according to author Ed Stuhler whose book on Rust’s flight to Red Square was published this month.
A year after returning from Moscow Rust was back in trouble with the law, this time for the attempted murder of a nursing student. He was convicted and sentenced to two and a half years in jail, Stuhler and Gabriele Denecke, a documentary filmmaker, both note.
Rust told Denecke in her film, “The Kremlin Pilot”, that considering what happened to him after the flight, he would not try something like that again.