Perhaps, if you are old enough, you remember Mathias Rust. On 28 May 1987, the eighteen-year old German aviator leveraged his mere fifty hours of flying experience into one of the most daring and dangerous episodes of the Cold War. Rust, animated by a youthful belief in his own ability to ease East-West tensions, piloted a Reims Cessna F172P from Helsinki, straight into the teeth of Soviet air defenses, penetrated into the heart of Moscow, and landed his aircraft directly onto Red Square. It was the most lunatic act of political aviation in Europe since Rudolf Hess’s 10 May 1941 flight to Scotland, and Rust was very fortunate to emerge from it alive — and, after a few months in a Soviet labor camp, free. Even now, thirty-five years later, the original footage of his light aircraft’s descent into Red Square has a surreal quality to it. There are the tall red-brick walls of the Kremlin and the adjacent historic city center, and there is the small white plane flitting to rest below them.
Rust himself turned out to be a not particularly admirable figure: some time after his return to Germany, his penchant for delusion expressed itself differently when he nearly killed a woman who rejected him. But his singular act illuminated the extent to which the contemporaneous armed forces of the Soviet Union were incompetent to defend the country. It doesn’t get much more emphatic than that — even German teens can hit the Kremlin unopposed — and the political leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev took the opportunity to clean house among the generals. The purge of sorts was ostensibly for reasons of military efficacy, but it was actually a political act. With the enemies of Gorbachev’s reform agenda concentrated in the security services, their humiliation and forced retirement was an opportunity not to be missed.