The End of the Cold War

Duncan White in The Telegraph:

Gorbachev-largeOn May 28 1987, a skinny 19-year-old German took off from Helsinki in his Cessna and made for Moscow. Flying into Soviet airspace, Mathias Rust was tracked for a while by a MiG fighter, but carried on undaunted, flying low in a bid to avoid radar. Once over the Soviet capital, he used a map to find his way to Red Square, and took two low passes in an attempt to clear a space for a landing amid the gathering crowd before touching down on a neighbouring bridge. He chatted to the bemused Muscovites in awkward English; he said he wanted to “build an imaginary bridge” across the Iron Curtain. He asked if he might speak to Mikhail Gorbachev. The KGB had other ideas and locked him up.

Gorbachev, it turns out, was not even in Moscow, but at a meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders in East Berlin. When he was informed that an amateur aviator had penetrated what was supposed to be the most sophisticated air defence system in the world, he told the gathered leaders it constituted a grave humiliation for the Soviet Union. Inwardly, though, he was jubilant: Rust had given him leverage over the hardliners in the military who opposed his reforms. Eduard Shevardnadze, minister of foreign affairs and Gorbachev's partner in Perestroika, was so delighted that he celebrated by getting stuck into a bottle of brandy in his hotel room. The irony was that for all Rust's sentimental nonsense about imaginary peace bridges, his escapade did help to pave the way for major treaties on nuclear disarmament between the United States and the USSR. At a meeting of the Politburo on May 30, the defence minister Sergei Sokolov was forced to resign, and many sackings followed. It was a heavy blow to Gorbachev's opponents. Rust, meanwhile, spent two months in prison before being released in a diplomatic goodwill gesture.

More here.