37 years ago, German amateur pilot Mathias Rust bypassed Soviet air defense and landed on Red Square. He was helped by the negligence of the military and incredible luck — hereʼs his story in archival footage

Serhii Pyvovarov
Yuliana Skibitska
37 years ago, German amateur pilot Mathias Rust bypassed Soviet air defense and landed on Red Square. He was helped by the negligence of the military and incredible luck — hereʼs his story in archival footage

Mathias Rust on Red Square in 1992. He came to Moscow for the first time after his flight in May 1987.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On May 28, 1987, at around 7 p.m. local time, a Cessna light aircraft unexpectedly landed on Red Square in Moscow. It was run by an 18-year-old young man from West Germany, Mathias Rust. He explained to surprised passers-by and law enforcement officers that he had come to demonstrate the Westʼs peaceful intentions towards the USSR. Rust flew into the territory of the Soviet Union from the side of Finland and passed through all echelons of the Soviet air defense, which was considered the most powerful in the world. Rust was lucky. In some air defense units they did not dare to shoot it down without an order from above, in others they mistook it for a "friendly" plane and did not report it to the command. The German was imprisoned, but in 1988 he was pardoned and sent home. And the top of the Soviet military leadership was dismissed from their positions. Babel tells the incredible story of Mathias Rustʼs flight.

On the evening of May 28, 1987, military analyst John Pike looked out of the window of the US Embassy in Moscow and saw a small plane in the sky circling over the Red Square area. “How strange”, Pike thought, “there is no private aviation in the USSR. Hell, thereʼs nothing private here at all."

Then passers-by who were walking on Red Square at that time were surprised. The plane made a few circles, then unexpectedly began to descend, landed on the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge, miraculously not crashing into cars moving on it, drove to Red Square and stopped near St. Basilʼs Cathedral.

A crowd quickly gathered around the plane. A young man in a red flight suit came out of it. He did not understand Russian. Finally, a passer-by asked him in English who he was and where he was from. He replied that his name was Mathias Rust and that he had come from Germany on a peace mission. At first, people thought that he was from socialist East Germany — from the GDR. They started congratulating Rust, asking him for autographs, some woman handed him a loaf of bread as a symbol of friendship. However, Rust clarified that he is from the "other Germany" — that is, from Germany, and wants to meet with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and discuss a peace strategy between the West and the East.

Archival footage of Matias Rust landing on Red Square on May 28, 1987.

While the Soviet law enforcement officers recovered, more than an hour passed. They surrounded the plane, pushed back the crowd. Rust was detained and taken for questioning to the KGB detention center in Lefortovo.

In the following days, Mathias Rustʼs name was on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. In the Western press, various versions were put forward — that Rust fought with someone over a bet, or that he wanted to impress his girlfriend in this way. West German newspapers called him the new Red Baron. The Soviet broadsheet Pravda was categorical. They said that the Western special services conspired and used a naive young man. It was supposed to be shot down by Soviet air defense, and this would have provoked an international scandal. And the date was not chosen by chance — May 28 was the Day of the Border Guard in the USSR. As it turned out later, everyone was wrong in their guesses.

Mathias Rust next to the plane in the aero club, 1985-1986.
Mathias Rustʼs flight instructor with a newspaper reporting his landing on Red Square, May 1987.

Mathias Rust next to the plane in the aero club, 1985-1986. Mathias Rustʼs flight instructor with a newspaper reporting his landing on Red Square, May 1987.

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Mathias Rust had the most cherished dream — to become a pilot, and the most terrible fear — a nuclear war between the USSR and the West. He began to realize his dream in 1985 at the age of 16 — he signed up for flying courses at the aero club in his native Hamburg. In the same year, the new Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, who tried to reduce the tension in relations between the USSR and the USA and gradually gained a reputation in the West as a progressive politician.

In October 1986, US President Ronald Reagan met with Gorbachev at a summit in Reykjavik to discuss mutual reductions in nuclear arms. This meeting became an important stage on the way to mutual understanding between the two superpowers. However, people did not know this. Publicly, the summit ended without the signing of agreements and even without a joint statement by the two leaders.

Rust was disappointed. It seemed to him that Reagan reflexively continues to consider the USSR an "evil empire", despite all Gorbachevʼs peaceful efforts. Rust set out to change the American presidentʼs mind. But only some grandiose act could attract attention. So Rust came up with the idea of combining political activism with his passion for flying.

“I thought I could build an imaginary bridge between the West and the East and land at the gates of the Kremlin in Moscow. If I could fly through the Iron Curtain unscathed, it would show that Gorbachev is serious about new relations with the West. In that case, how could Reagan continue to talk about the ʼevil empireʼ?ʼʼ Rust recalled later.

Rust next to a portrait of Gorbachev after his return to Germany from a Soviet prison, 1989.

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The German perfectly understood that he might not have enough flying experience. But the most important thing is that it can repeat the fate of the crew and passengers of the South Korean Boeing 747, which was shot down by the Soviet military in 1983. "But I was convinced that I was doing whatʼs right, the main thing was to dare to do it," Rust said.

In May 1987, he did dare. Rust took all the money he had, and also borrowed from his parents to rent a Cessna light engine plane from his flying club. He chose a modified model where additional fuel tanks were installed instead of two passenger seats. He explained his choice by the fact that he wants to travel through northern Europe on his own and fly the number of hours necessary to obtain a professional pilotʼs license.

On May 13th, Rust flew from Hamburg via the Faroe Islands to Iceland, where he spent a week. From there — through the Norwegian Bergen to Helsinki, where he arrived on May 25. Rust spent the next three days in the Finnish capital on nerves. He doubted his plan to fly to Moscow to the last — sometimes he was determined to do it, then he recognized the idea as completely crazy.

Rustʼs flight route in May 1987.


On the morning of May 28, Rust refueled the plane, checked the weather, informed the controller that he was heading to Stockholm, and in the afternoon took off from the airport in Helsinki. He kept to the given route for about half an hour. "All of a sudden, I just turned the plane to the left. It was almost on autopilot. I just turned 170 degrees and headed across the Gulf of Finland to the Soviet border," Rust recalled.

Finnish controllers noticed that Rustʼs plane had changed course and tried to contact him. But he did not answer, and then disappeared from the radar. A helicopter was sent to search for him, the pilot of which noticed an oil slick and what appeared to be debris in the area where Rust disappeared. The Finns organized a search and rescue operation, but found nothing.

Meanwhile, around 2:30 p.m., Soviet radars in Estonia detected an unidentified aircraft that did not respond to requests. Three rocket launchers were brought into combat readiness, and two MiG-23 fighters were sent to meet them. Soviet pilots reported that they saw a small plane similar to the Yak-12 through the clouds. They asked for further instructions, including permission to open fire. However, after the incident with the South Korean Boeing 747, such orders could only be given by the highest command. On that particular day, Gorbachev, together with the entire Soviet army, was in East Berlin at a meeting of the Warsaw Pact countries.

MiG pilots were not allowed to shoot, and no other instructions were given. High-speed fighters could not constantly accompany an aircraft that was moving at a low altitude at a low speed. The MiGs returned to the base, the duty to monitor the unidentified aircraft was simply transferred to the next air defense district. Twice more, Soviet fighters from other airfields rose to intercept Rustʼs plane. But with the same result: the pilots did not receive clear instructions on what to do with the offending aircraft, so they returned to the bases.

Rust poses for a German publication after returning home from a Soviet prison, 1989. In his hands is a motorcycle helmet, similar to the one he took with him on a flight in May 1987 for additional protection.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

This is how Rust was lucky for the first time. He did not know about this and was scared to death when he saw the Soviet fighters hovering around. "My heart was pounding. I was sure that the very moment had come when I would be beaten," Rust recalled.

The second time, Rust was lucky when he flew over Pskov. The local air regiment was having military training, so controllers had given all air transport in the area "friendly" status just in case, so as not to shoot down one of their own. Then Rust got on the radar of Soviet dispatchers near the city of Torzhok in the Tver region. But the day before, two military planes collided in the air in this area. Since Rust was flying at low speed and low altitude, his plane was mistaken for a search and rescue helicopter.

Then Rust got into the zone of the Moscow Air Defense District. The command there received only fragmentary information about the violator. Like, itʼs some pilot on a Soviet Yak-12, most likely a student-athlete who got off course. There was not a word about the fact that this plane crossed the border in the area of the Gulf of Finland, and fighter jets were repeatedly raised to intercept it.

The alarm was sounded only when the plane entered the airspace of Moscow, where all flights — both military and civilian — were prohibited. But it was too late, no one dared to shoot him down over the city. In the end, Rust was miraculously lucky when he landed. Usually, trolleybus wires are stretched over the Moskvoretsky bridge. It was on the morning of May 28 that they were removed to be replaced with new ones the next day.

KGB investigators, of course, did not believe in such coincidences. But later they became convinced that Rust was not a spy, but an idealistic young man who was simply incredibly lucky. The German recalled how later, during the interrogations, the investigators were surprised to say that he was "apparently born in a shirt."

Rustʼs trial began in September 1987 in Moscow. He was charged with violation of aviation law, illegal border crossing and disorderly conduct and sentenced to four years in prison. But already in August 1988, the Soviet authorities pardoned him as a gesture of goodwill and sent him back to West Germany.

Mathias Rust in a Soviet court, September 1987.
Mathias Rust at the Frankfurt airport after returning from a Soviet prison, August 1988.

Mathias Rust in a Soviet court, September 1987. Mathias Rust at the Frankfurt airport after returning from a Soviet prison, August 1988.

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Although Rustʼs flight had an international resonance, it did not prevent further negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev on the reduction of nuclear weapons. In September 1987, they agreed on the text of the Treaty on the elimination of medium- and short-range missiles, and on December 8 they officially signed it.

But for the military leadership of the USSR, Rustʼs flight had serious consequences. In Soviet newspapers, devastating articles began to appear about the failure of the Soviet air defense system, which until recently was considered the most reliable in the world. In the end, Gorbachev organized the largest purge of the military command since the 1930s. Minister of Defense Serhii Sokolov, commander of air defense forces Oleksandr Koldunov and several hundred other officers of various ranks lost their positions.

The Cessna plane on which Rust landed in Moscow was taken apart by KGB investigators. No suspicious equipment was ever found. Later, the Soviet government put the plane up for sale. First, it was bought by a German company, then it got to Japan. Finally, in 2008, it was transferred to the German Technical Museum in Berlin.

Mathias Rustʼs plane in the Berlin museum, 2010.


As for Mathias Rust himself, his adventures did not end there. In 1989, he received 15 months in prison for a knife attack on a girl who refused him a date. In the mid-1990s, he converted to Hinduism to become engaged to the daughter of an Indian tea merchant. In the 2000s, he was fined first for stealing a sweater from a supermarket, and then for check fraud. In 2009, Rust announced himself as a professional poker player, and in 2012 — as an investment analyst and yoga teacher.

Mathias Rust in 2012.

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In his interviews, Rust said that although he considers his flight a senseless act, he does not regret it. And he is ready to land on Red Square again, but only with the permission of the authorities. However, he never got behind the wheel of an airplane again, after his flight to Moscow, he had no time to even dream of a pilotʼs license. The only thing that Rust regrets is that he was never able to meet with Gorbachev, even after the collapse of the USSR.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyznenko.

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Peter Finn. A Dubious Diplomat. The Washington Post, 27 May 2007.

Tom LeCompte. The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust. Smithsonian Magazine, July 2005.

Chloe Hadjimatheou. Mathias Rust: German teenager who flew to Red Square. BBC, 7 December 2012.

Don Oberdorfer. From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983—1991. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Serhii Pyvovarov
Yuliana Skibitska

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