The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust
Ronald Reagan was president, there was still a Soviet Union, and a 19-year-old pilot set out to change the world.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 7 of 8)
One German periodical published a story saying Rust did the stunt on a bet. Another reported that he did it to impress a girl. Yet another said he did it in order to drop leaflets seeking to free nonagenarian Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s lieutenant, from jail. The Communist newspaper Pravda accused Rust of being a patsy in an international plot in which he was supposed to have been shot down and killed in order to provoke an international incident. However ridiculous the rumors were, the Soviets methodically looked into every allegation.
On June 23, 1987, the Soviets completed their investigation. Shortly afterward, prosecutors charged Rust with illegal entry, violation of flight laws, and “malicious hooliganism.” Rust pleaded guilty to all but the last charge. There was, he argued, nothing malicious in his intentions.
On September 4, after a three-day trial, a panel of three judges found Rust guilty of all charges and sentenced him to four years at Lefortovo. The prison, though starker and more restrictive than a labor camp, ensured Rust’s safety. He spent his time there quietly and was afforded special privileges: He was allowed to work in the garden and receive visits by his parents every two months.
On August 3, 1988, two months after Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, the Supreme Soviet, in what Tass described as a “goodwill gesture,” ordered Rust released from prison.
According to William E. Odom, former director of the National Security Agency and author of The Collapse of the Soviet Military, Rust’s flight damaged the reputation of the vast Soviet military and enabled Gorbachev to remove the staunchest opponents to his reforms. Within days of Rust’s landing, the Soviet defense minister and the Soviet air defense chief were sacked. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of other officers were fired or replaced—from the country’s most revered war heroes to scores of lesser officers. It was the biggest turnover in the Soviet military command since Stalin’s bloody purges of the 1930s.
More important than the replacement of specific individuals, analyst John Pike says, was the change Rust’s flight precipitated in the public’s perception of the military. The myth of Soviet military superiority had been punctured, and with it the almost religious reverence the public had held for its armed forces.
For decades, Soviet citizens had been led to believe “the West was poised to destroy them…that if they let their guard down for an instant that they would be obliterated,” says Pike. It was this thinking that helped perpetuate the cold war. Rust’s flight proved otherwise: The Soviet Union could suffer a breach without being destroyed by external forces. Ultimately, of course, it would be internal forces that would do the job.
The flying club’s Cessna changed hands several times (in 1988, it was listed for sale in Trade-A-Plane) before ending up with a Japanese developer who intended to make it an attraction at an amusement park. That project went bankrupt and the airplane disappeared.