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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?

April 16, 1991|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAMBURG, Germany — 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.

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