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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pilot Regrets His Red Square Bet

For MTRust posing at Hamburg-Fuhlsbuettel Airport last June. He says he spends most of his time in Berlin and Tallinn.
On a mild evening in late spring 1987, a single-engine Cessna airplane circled over the Kremlin before landing on Moskvoretsky Bridge and taxiing uphill past St. Basil's Cathedral and parking just on the edge of Red Square.

The pilot was 19-year-old Mathias Rust from West Germany, who stunned the world by taking off from Helsinki, flying 800 kilometers in some of the world's most heavily guarded airspace and landing in the heart of the Soviet empire.

It will be exactly 20 years ago Monday that Rust emerged from the cockpit and greeted bewildered bystanders after risking his life for what he called a humanitarian mission: He told Soviet prosecutors after his arrest that he had wanted to meet with Kremlin leaders and talk about peace and disarmament.

Now 39, Rust is still a risk taker, though he has swapped peace projects for the poker tables.

"I usually play in casinos or in private homes," Rust said in a telephone interview. "I am not really into online gambling."

These days Rust splits time between Berlin and Tallinn. The Estonian capital, with its flourishing gambling scene, serves as the hub for his professional poker career, though he claims his biggest payout came in a Las Vegas tournament, which he left from almost $1 million richer.

Rust says he turned to poker four years ago after several projects -- including an attempt to work as a freelance negotiator in hostage cases in Palestinian territories -- failed to yield results.

Rust's Cessna parked on Red Square after the six-hour flight from Helsinki.
"I wanted to do something substantial that secured me financially," he said.

He doesn't see his new profession as unorthodox.

"Poker is something for people with enough money who can take losses," he said. "I am not betting my last penny."

Three years ago Rust divorced his second wife, who was from Trinidad, and he says he now feels more Estonian than German. But it is pure coincidence that he first entered Soviet airspace back in 1987 near the Estonian town of Kohtla-J?rve, he said.

After being detained by startled Soviet security officers following his landing, Rust was taken to the KGB-run Lefortovo jail, where he waited all summer until his trial began in September. He was convicted of illegally crossing into Russia and of malicious hooliganism and sentenced to four years in a prison labor camp. But he was allowed to stay in Lefortovo -- reportedly because Soviet authorities were concerned about his safety -- and pardoned in August 1988, after which he returned to West Germany.

Rust has had a tumultuous life since leaving the Soviet penal system. In 1989 he stabbed a nurse in a hospital near his hometown of Wedel, outside Hamburg, where he was doing his compulsory community service. He found himself in court again and was sentenced 2 1/2 years in prison over the incident but was released after five months.

He later embarked on a career as a businessman and said that he worked for a finance company with interests in South America and the Caribbean.

Rust attending a hearing in the Soviet Supreme Court on Sept. 2, 1987.
In 2001 he was fined for stealing a cashmere sweater from a Hamburg department store, and he has since been found guilty on minor fraud charges and of failing to pay a furniture bill.

Rust said he finds little solace in the historic flight that enthralled the world.

"I was naive, I really should not have done it," he said. "It caused me so much hardship."

Rust had rented the Cessna from his flying club in northern Germany and first flew to Iceland, where he visited the site of the failed 1986 summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He then went on to Helsinki, where he embarked on his trip to Moscow.

Rust said he planned the trip alone for months -- with serious doubts that he could pull it off -- but that he remembers little from the flight itself.

"I was in a trance-like state from takeoff in Helsinki until I landed in Moscow," Rust said.

Touching down near Red Square after more than six hours in the air "was like being reborn," he said. "It was unreal. I just cannot find words to explain."

Some military officials still maintain that Rust's flight was not the isolated act of a peculiar young man, but rather a calculated affront from an erstwhile enemy.

"I thought then, and still believe, that this was a planned provocation," said Anatoly Kornukov, who was a senior air defense commander at the time. "Everybody knew then that civilian sport airplanes would not be shot down."

Kornukov is one to know: He commanded an air defense unit based in Sakhalin in 1983 whose fighter jets took off before shooting down a Korean jumbo jet, killing 269 passengers and crew. Kornukov went on to become commander of the Air Force in post-communist Russia.

Aviation and military experts have repeatedly claimed that in the wake of the tragedy, the Soviet Union shied away from engaging small civilian aircraft such as Rust's.

Strict orders were given that no hostile action was to be taken against civilian aircraft unless they came from the highest levels, said Tom LeCompte, a U.S. aviation journalist who is working on a book about Rust.

Claims that Rust's flight made a mockery of Soviet air defenses are wildly overblown, LeCompte said.

"He was carefully tracked by Soviet forces and was even encountered by a MiG fighter jet," LeCompte said in a telephone interview.

Gorbachev, who missed Rust's landing because he was at a Warsaw Pact meeting in East Berlin, sacked several high-ranking officers, including Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov. Historians have argued that Gorbachev grabbed the opportunity to rid the military top-brass of people hostile to his reforms.

Rust said only a series of coincidences made his landing possible.

He initially wanted to land directly on Red Square, but he chose the Moskvoretsky Bridge because Red Square was too crowded. As it turned out, the electricity cables that typically spanned over the bridge had been removed for maintenance.

"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.

Rust said he had no special feelings toward Russia, adding that his mission had more to do with the Soviet political system rather than the country itself.

He conceded, however, that something positive might have come of the adventure.

"[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."