20 Years Ago, a Young Pilot Took a Headlong Flight Into Cold War History

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The single-engine Cessna aircraft, flying just 10 yards off the ground, buzzed Red Square three times as the pilot looked for a place to land. But too many people were on the square that May evening. So the plane pulled up and circled the Kremlin walls before setting down on the nearby Moskvoretsky Bridge and taxiing to St. Basil's Cathedral to park.

Twenty years ago, Mathias Rust, a 19-year-old dreamer from West Germany, pierced the Soviet Union's air defenses on what seemed like a delusional mission to unite East and West. But in one of the Cold War's most iconic footnotes, he handed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev an excuse to purge his defense minister and other military hard-liners opposed to his glasnost reforms, an important step toward the fall of communism.

"When I look back, I am of two minds about what I did," said Rust, now a wealthy investor and high-stakes poker player who divides his time between Germany and the former Soviet republic of Estonia. "I caused myself a lot of problems, but it was my destiny and you have to live your destiny."

In 1987, Rust was upset over the continuing U.S.-Soviet standoff and deeply disappointed with the failure the previous year of the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. The two leaders had seemed on the verge of a historic breakthrough on nuclear arms control, but the talks collapsed at the last minute.

"I was full of dreams then, and I believed everything was possible," Rust said in a telephone interview from Hamburg, where he has an apartment. "My intention with the flight was to build a kind of imaginary bridge between East and West."

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