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(David Povilaitis)

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.

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.

Rust never piloted an airplane again. In fact, he spent many years trying to distance himself from his famous flight. In 2002 he founded a mediation service designed to “fight violence by providing proper redress,” for which he has spent a lot of time in the Middle East, mostly in Palestinian territories, but to help pay the bills Rust also works for a London-based investment firm.

Though frustrated that he never got to meet Gorbachev, he takes satisfaction in having had a small but important impact on relations between the superpowers. Four years after his “mission,” the forces that his flight helped to strengthen dissolved the Soviet Union, and the cold war ended.

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