It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since i was taking the measure one fine evening of Moscow at its best --in late May--and glimpsed an American-made small plane parked near St. Basil's Cathedral, just off Red Square. I couldn't really believe what I was seeing, so I crossed the Square for a closer look. A policeman moved menacingly toward me, so I made a simple, declarative statement. "That's an American airplane." The policeman looked daggers at me and said, "yes." I then asked, "what is it doing here?" He replied, without batting an eye, "they're making a movie." "Oh, okay," I said. Why not? What else would an American-made small aircraft be doing near the heart of Moscow? The Cold War was very much with us still, in spite of the Gorbachev-Reagan jetset summiteering all over the planet.
I returned to my hotel to learn the real story--not from the news, of course, but from friends affiliated with the American embassy. It seems a young man from Germany had rented a plane in Finland and lied to Finnish air controllers about his destination, which was not Sweden, but the USSR(!). He flew all the way from Helsinki to the bridge that connects one side of the Moscow river with the Kremlin, coming to a stop near St. Basil's, in a few hours. He encountered virtually no opposition, save some token surveillance from a MIG fighter when he crossed into Soviet air space. The most delicious irony of all was that he pulled off this sensational feat on, of all things, BORDER GUARD DAY. This is the day when the Soviet Union honored the men in green hats that rummage through your luggage at customs, who guard the Soviet borders with their faithful dogs, who do their best to keep citizens from doing a runner on the Motherland. I guess all the Guards were out partying 'til they puked, maybe, because no one was on duty to do anything about "the flying hooligan," as the police who arrested Mathias Rust termed him. He had a free pass almost all the way into the heart of Moscow!
Even though the press immediately went into high dudgeon at this outrage--not at the border guards, but against this successor of the German Fascist invaders--Gorbachev got, and took, the opportunity to fire several officials who were opposing his plans for reforming the Soviet Union. It was a good day for him in the end. It was also an endless source of amusement to Soviet citizens cynical about, or contemptuous of their government, mainly in Moscow. But I remember it best for the fact that in the end, Rust pulled a huge fast one, a prank for the ages, on a bunch of Soviet paperpushers who never had come close to knowing the meaning of the word "humiliation." For once, these awful people, these bureaucrats who only knew how to say no and obstruct and oppress people, stood before the world with egg all over their face.
In some ways, that's the greatest thing I've ever seen happen in the Twilight Zone/Black Hole of Europe. I smile every time I think about it, which is often. Long live Mathias Rust, the Flying Hooligan!