Postscript : Violence and Rust: A Fall From Grace : * Mathias Rust, who shocked the Kremlin--and the world--when he landed his small plane in Red Square several years ago, is on trial for attempted murder. Was the price of the famous flight just too high?


When Mathias Rust noticed an old man struggling with a heavy suitcase at the train station recently, he stopped to help.

"Thank you. Thank you so much!" the man said. Rust realized with a pang that it was the first time a stranger had smiled at him in 18 months.

Then the old man stopped in his tracks. Wasn't he Mathias Rust, the famous young pilot who penetrated Soviet defense systems and landed his small plane in Red Square?

"Yes," Rust replied. "Yes, I am."

The old man smiled at Rust again--then spit in his face and shuffled away.

Four years after he set his plane down in the shadow of the Kremlin and announced he was on a private peace mission, Mathias Rust has made another lonely journey--from hero to outcast.

Perhaps even more spectacular than his flight is his fall.

Now 23, Rust is on trial this week for attempted murder, accused of stabbing a teen-age girl at the hospital where both worked. If convicted, Rust could spend the rest of his life in prison.

His attorney, Yitzhak Goldfine, readily acknowledged in an interview that Rust plunged his switchblade into the 18-year-old student nurse's stomach three times in the hospital locker room Nov. 23, 1989. If the incident hadn't occurred in a hospital, the attorney said, the girl would have died and Rust would be charged with murder.

Goldfine depicts his client as a victim of diminished capacity--"an absolutely isolated man" who never fit into a society that alternately ridiculed and revered him.

It was May 28, 1987, when Rust rented a small Cessna and flew from Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow, through some of the world's most heavily defended airspace. He evaded Soviet jet fighters sent to intercept him and buzzed the Kremlin before landing on the cobblestones of Red Square.

Thousands of letters from around the world praised young Rust for his courage, his adventurism, his idealism. He appeared on television and signed autographs. Flight clubs listened transfixed to his story. A Japanese millionaire wanted to build a miniature Kremlin for Rust to re-enact the historical flight.

But to Goldfine, the flight was something quite different--a virtual suicide attempt by a painfully misunderstood youth. A "kamikaze mission."

Rust grew up a gawky, friendless boy, a know-it-all whose thick glasses and aloof manner inspired other children to nickname him "Professor."

His imperfect eyesight made Rust realize at 14 that he could never fulfill his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. His engineer father saved enough money for Rust to take private lessons anyway.

Convicted of "malicious hooliganism" for his exploit, Rust served a year in a Soviet prison, then was freed and returned to his family's cramped Hamburg apartment.

"His mother made it a temple to Mathias Rust," Goldfine said. Walls are covered with pictures of the youth posing with German officials, posing in a plane. Plaques and model planes from aviation clubs are kept dust-free.

"His mother is compulsively neat, and so is Mathias," Goldfine said. "When he comes to my house, even, he starts to rearrange things. Everything must be in order. Mathias makes no compromises."

Goldfine said he does not know how much money Rust earned during his brief time as a celebrity, but it was enough to drive a Mercedes-Benz and buy a horse. He considered the animal his only friend.

Even though Rust was, for a while, acclaimed and sought after, he still was not particularly liked. He remained the stuck-up, nerdy "Professor," and envy made the taunts even more cruel, his attorney said.

When he chose to perform civil service in lieu of mandatory military service, Mathias was assigned to work as an orderly at the hospital where he was born.

Soon co-workers were taunting him, according to Goldfine. He said nurses would brush past Rust in the hall and sarcastically swoon, "Ooh, it's Mathias Rust, the Kremlin flier. Ooh, can I have your autograph?" Supervisors purportedly remarked that he thought he was too important to properly clean a toilet.

According to his attorney, the tall and awkward Rust had a crush on a petite new nursing student identified only as "Stefanie"--even though he had never met her.

According to the prosecutor, Stefanie had just changed into her street clothes on the day of the attack when Rust entered the locker room, secured the door from the inside and approached her.

He towered over Stefanie, and "she had the impression he was about to kiss her," said the prosecutor's spokesman, Juergen Daniels. Stefanie screamed, and both sides agree that Rust then backed off, assuring her, "Hey, it's OK. It's OK. I just wanted to ask you to dinner."

Stefanie started to leave when, according to the prosecutor, Rust suddenly stabbed her in the stomach.

In Rust's version, Stefanie angrily wheeled on him after he initially backed off and taunted him about the Moscow flight. "I had the feeling that something in me just snapped. Then suddenly everything went dark," he testified Monday, when his trial opened.

In that moment, according to Goldfine, Rust's life "flicked before him like a film, and the next thing he knew, he was in the forest outside the hospital and he knew something terrible had happened."

Rust called the police from a telephone booth and was arrested at a nearby cafe. He was later released on $100,000 bail, posted by his parents.

Since then, his attorney has spent 10 days in the Soviet Union, convinced that there, somewhere in dusty archives and cautious memories, he would find the key to Mathias Rust.

Rust has been in hiding with his Polish fiancee--a girl he met after the stabbing incident. Goldfine has also advised the Rust family not to grant interviews. He said his client is taking college courses by mail, would like to become a veterinarian and hopes to leave Germany forever.

"He moves very slowly," the attorney added. "He walks like a 90-year-old man and drives like an old man, too. He speaks to everyone like a teacher."

Even a letter Rust wrote from prison apologizing to Stefanie seems stiff and passionless.

"It's difficult for me to believe the whole thing," he wrote. "What happened is completely against my peaceful nature."

He closed the letter by wishing her a speedy recovery (she is said to have fully recovered from her wounds) and offering his "experienced" advice in dealing with the media.

"They will just twist your words," he warned.

By then, the same papers that once fawned over "Rusty," were calling him "Mac the Knife."

"He goes out only after dark," Goldfine said. "No one would rent him an apartment. He can't get a job or enroll in college. If he comes into a pub and sits at a table, other customers get up and walk out."

He had to sell his beloved horse, La Bamba, when other boarders told the stable owner they would not let their daughters ride there if Rust remained.

"Earlier, he was isolated by choice," his attorney said. "Now society makes that choice for him."

Bomb threats have forced Goldfine to evacuate his office twice since taking on the Rust case.

He pulled out a file thick with ugly hate mail addressed to Rust. He estimates there have been at least 500 such letters.

"An 85-year-old woman wrote his mother and said she should have done the world a favor and just killed her son when he was born," Goldfine said.

Rust, ever meticulous, insists upon opening and reading every letter, refusing his attorney's pleas to simply burn them.

"You know what's funny?" Goldfine asked. "No, not funny--mad, really. It makes him happy. In some weird way, they become his imaginary friends."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World