Matthias Rust’s Daring Flight

Throughout the most of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was deemed to have been surrounded by an impenetrable airspace. There was that U2 incident in 1960, and in 1983, a civilian airliner was shot down for failing to respond to Soviet interceptors. But on May 28, 1987, this myth of Soviet might would be challenged by a West German teenager.

Matthais Rust spent his allowances to take 50 hours worth of flying lessons before embarking on an unauthorized flight from Helsinki to the heart of Moscow. Rust was picked up by radar. A Soviet fighter jet was in pursuit, but it could only communicate on military frequencies that Rust’s Cessna couldn’t receive. The Soviets assumed that he was either on a search-and-rescue mission or a student pilot. Six hours later, he made it to Moscow, and decided to land just outside the Kremlin walls. (He worried that if he had landed inside, the Soviets would arrest him and deny the whole thing). He landed by St. Basil’s Cathedral and taxied into the Red Square. Although he mingled with the people there–who thought he was part of an airshow–the KGB was also on spot to arrest him.

For violation of the Soviet airspace and oddly enough, hooliganism, Rust was put on trial. He served 432 days of his four-year sentence. The boy whom the media called “the new Red Baron” or “Don Quixote of the skies” never flew again. Inside the Kremlin walls, Mikhail Gorbechev would use the incident to shake up the Soviet military industrial complex and sack his top-brass. Looking back on it, Rust’s escapade was historic. His landing in Red Square was an unignorable symbol, the writing on the wall, a sign that the all-powerful Soviet Union was no longer fully in control. At the time, however, no one recognized its significance.

Stalin Is Dead

On March 1st, 1953, the morning after an all-night dinner in his country estate outside Moscow centre, Joseph Stalin failed to rise at his usual time. He was discovered lying on the floor of his room only at about 10 p.m. in the evening. The Deputy Prime Minister Lavrentiy Beria was summoned, but neither he nor the politburo called the doctors until the next day. (A few months earlier, aging and paranoid Marshal Stalin fabricated a “Doctors Plot” to assassinate top Soviet leaders). With his drunken son Vasili storming around the room, and the members of the Politburo haplessly wringing their hands, Stalin died on 5th March, and his body was transported back to the city to lay in state at the Hall of Columns, the grand ballroom of the House of Trade Unions, where Lenin had lain in state too.

(It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: “I took him out.” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about “spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him”, and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a favorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin’s death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge).

The Moscow Radio announced the news in a 47-minutes long bulletin. The next day, red flags went up all over the country in mourning. Those who were indeed not mourning were the motley crew that assembled at his bierside in the above historic photo. On the bier, Stalin was clad in a marshal’s uniform, with only one of his innumerable decorations–the “Hero of Socialist Labor”–on the breast. From left to right are: Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev, Kaganovich and Mikoyan.

Everyone was stiff and formal but everything was not well within the walls of Kremlin. They found Stalin’s shoes too big to fill. Stalin was succeeded first by a ruling “troika” with Beria, Molotov and Malenkov. Soon afterwards, Beria was purged and replaced by Khrushchev. When Molotov, Malenkov, Bulganin and Kaganovich attempted to pull the same trick of Khrushchev, the latter outmaneuvered them and they were dismissed. Khrushchev in turn was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Voroshilov as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet when Voroshilov retired.

Most of them (Khrushchev included) would spend the rest of their lives in obscure retirements. By the time Molotov died in 1986, he was the last of the ’17ers. “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich would nearly outlast the Soviet Union itself, living until 1991. The true survivor, politically wise, was Anastas Mikoyan, who consistently betted on the right horse: he supported Stalin when Lenin died; he denounced Beria’s and Molotov’s attempt to oust Khrushchev, and organized the latter’s de-Stalinization speech. When Mikoyan himself abandoned his support, Khrushchev knew it was the time to leave. Under Brezhnev, he was the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and retired with six Orders of Lenin.

Stalin, photographed by Dmitri Baltermants

Henry Cabot Lodge’s UN Trick

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Colin Powell famously used a vial of “anthrax” while trying in vain to win Security Council support for military action in Iraq, but there are times when props have been used a bit more effectively. During a debate over the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory on May 20th 1960, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jnr. decided to go on the offensive.

He accused the Soviet Union of hiding a microphone inside a wood carving of the Great Seal of the United States, which had been presented to the U.S. embassy in Moscow by the Soviet-American Friendship Society. He extracted a tiny microphone out of the eagle’s beak with a pair of tweezers, as Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko smiles with amusement and mockery behind Lodge.

“It so happens that I have here today a concrete example of Soviet espionage so that you can see for yourself,” he announced triumphantly. The Soviet resolution condemning the U.S. spy flights was subsequently defeated.

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Yeltsin on a tank

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On August 19, 1991, the hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by the then-Vice President Gennady Yanayev, put the pro-reform General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest. The party also sent tanks to suppress the people’s revolts for democracy.

At that critical juncture, Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, defied the hardliners. He made a speech from the turret of a tank, calling on the military to refrain from firing on the people. The Communist hardliners originally planned to occupy the Parliament at 3 a.m. on August 20, 1991. The plan was aborted after the Alpha Group, an elite unit of the KGB, refused to follow orders. In the defeat of the August Coup, the consciences of KGB agents played an important role–some KGB agents had their weapons aimed at Yeltsin on the tank but refrained from firing.

From the moment he scrambled atop the tank, it was clear Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin knew how to seize the day. Russia’s first freely elected leader in 1,000 years, he was the man who consigned the Soviet Union to history’s dustbin, and one who drove Russia’s chaotic transformation into a fledgling democracy during the ’90s. To cope, Yeltsin turned to vodka. After lunch during an official visit to Germany in ’94, he snatched the baton from a conductor and began to lead the band. A 1996 bypass operation seemed to check his drinking, but his health remained precarious. Public opinion turned against him as crime flourished and tycoons took control of state assets. By the time he resigned in 1999, the elements of suppression he fought were already returning. When he died in 2008, Bill Clinton remembered, “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him.”