"I Really Should Not Have Done It"
The fact that he's now a professional poker player should come
as a surprise to no one that knows him. Mathias Rust started
gambling and taking risks pretty early on in his rather unorthodox
and turbulent life.
Rust did something on May 28, 1987 many thought was impossible
at the time. He flew a rented Cessna 172B (file photo of type,
center) over the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, and landed on the
Moskvoretsky Bridge. He then taxied past St. Basil's Cathedral and
parked near Red Square.
Rust was a 19-year-old pilot from West Germany when he shocked
the world twenty years ago Monday by flying nearly 500 miles in
some of the most heavily guarded airspace in the world and landing
in the midst of the Soviet empire.
Why? Rust called his stunt a humanitarian mission, according to
the Moscow Times. He said he'd wanted to meet with Kremlin leaders
to discuss peace.
Rust, 39, has now focused his risk-taking nature on cards --
His career keeps him between Berlin and Tallinn, the capital of
Estonia and hub for his career, he says.
After landing, Rust was taken to the Lefortovo jail, and held
until his September trial. He was convicted of illegally crossing
into Russia and of malicious hooliganism and sentenced to four
years in prison. Pardoned in August 1988, Rust returned home to
Rust now regrets his actions. "I was naive, I really should not
have done it," he said. "It caused me so much hardship."
After his release from jail, Rust's life turned turbulent. While
performing required community service in 1989, he stabbed a nurse
near Hamburg, Germany, and was sentenced 2 1/2 years in prison but
was released after five months.
He was fined for stealing a cashmere sweater from a Hamburg
department store in 2001 and has been found guilty on several minor
fraud charges. He also divorced his second wife in 2004.
After several career failures, Rust turned to poker because, "I
wanted to do something substantial that secured me financially," he
Of the trip itself, Rust says he remembers little.
"I was in a trance-like state from takeoff in Helsinki until I
landed in Moscow," he said.
After renting the Cessna from his northern Germany flying club,
he flew to Iceland to visit the site of the failed 1986 summit
between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald
Reagan. From there, he went to Helsinki, then to Moscow.
It was a coincidence that made the landing possible, Rust said.
Electricity cables spanning the Moskvoretsky Bridge had been
removed for maintenance just prior to his arrival.
"They were replaced the next morning, so when senior KGB
officials visited the place, they could not understand how I could
possibly have landed there," Rust said.
There are those who still contend Rust's flight was not an act
of a teenaged political activist... but a calculated move by an
enemy, according to the newspaper.
Anatoly Kornukov, a senior air
defense commander at the time, said, "I thought then, and still
believe, that this was a planned provocation," he said. "Everybody
knew then that civilian sport airplanes would not be shot
Kornukov was commander of an air defense unit based in Sakhalin
in 1983 where he gave the order to shoot down Korean Air Lines
Flight 007 killing 269 passengers and crew.
According to US aviation journalist and author Tom LeCompte --
who is writing a book about Rust and his famous adventure -- strict
orders were in place that no hostile action was to be taken against
any civilian aircraft unless they came from the highest levels.
At the time, claims were made that Rust's flight made a "mockery
of Soviet air defenses" but they were exaggerated," LeCompte said.
"He was carefully tracked by Soviet forces and was even encountered
by a MiG fighter jet."
Consequences of Rust's flight had far reaching effects.
Gorbachev fired several high-ranking officers and as many as 2000
others over the incident including Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov.
It has been said Gorbachev used the opportunity to rid the military
of those hostile to his reforms.
Rust finds little comfort in his moment in the spotlight. He
said he never thought he'd pull it off in the first place. But, he
believes perhaps something positive may, indeed, have come of his
"[The Soviets] took great pains to understand me and my
motivations. If you think of what the Cold War propaganda did back
then, and what Westerners and Russians thought of each other, then
the outcome was in fact quite good," he said.
(Red Square photo by Dmitry
Azovtsev, used with permission.)