In 1987 Mathias Rust Landed a Plane in Moscow: So What?

On 28 May 1987 a German teenager landed this plane in the very centre of Moscow:


It was an amazing feat; a high-risk gesture that the pilot, Mathias Rust, says was supposed to help advance world peace. He hoped to “pass through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted, [as] it would show that Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West.” “How would Reagan continue to say it was the ‘Empire of Evil’ if me, in a small aircraft, can go straight there and be unharmed?”



After leaving Helsinki, Rust was able to penetrate Soviet airspace via the Baltic Sea. His aircraft was tracked on-and-off all the way to Moscow but nothing was done to stop the incursion.

A MiG-23 fighter briefly flew alongside Rust’s Cessna, though permission was never granted to intercept him. As Rust passed through airspace sectors, his radar signature was designated ‘friendly’ by operators who assumed a training pilot had erred in setting the correct transponder code and, later, judged that the Cessna was in fact a Soviet helicopter.

Rust circled Red Square and eventually landed on a bridge near St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Clearly, this invasion of Soviet airspace – a journey all the way to Moscow – was not supposed to happen.

The whole episode was deeply embarrassing for the Soviet Union, but particularly for the hardliners in the Soviet Defense Ministry. Sergei Sokolov (pictured below) was removed from his position as Minister of Defense, along with hundreds of other military officials.


The effect of the incident was to strengthen the position of Premier Gorbachev within the Kremlin hierarchy. The discrediting of the military meant that the more conservative Politburo members lost influence, allowing the reform-minded to pursue their own agenda.

Similar to the Chernoybyl disaster in 1986, the incident exposed the shortcomings of the Soviet regime and further highlighted the need for change.


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