“It all seems to me like a dream which I don’t want to wake up from. What’ll happen if you open your eyes and realise that you’re still there – in a Russian prison” says 42-year old Eugenijus Mataitis who with another Lithuanian and a Norwegian was exchanged for two Russian spies, Eugenija Grižibauskienė wrote in lrytas.lt
Just over a month ago on the 15th of October, a hitherto unheard of the event took place in independent Lithuania’s history. Two Lithuanians imprisoned in Russia – Eugenijus Mataitis and Aristidas Tamošaitis were exchanged for two Russian spies and returned to Lithuania.
Along with them a Norwegian national, Frode Berg was also released from a Russian prison.
Nikolay Filipchenko and Sergey Moisejenko who were imprisoned in Lithuania for espionage were pardoned and sent back to Russia.
This story began on a warm 24th of June in 2015. That day Eugenijus Mataitis with his wife and two children were on their way from the Lithuanian seaside and arrived at the Lithuanian-Russian border.
The family members, all of whom had dual nationality, passed successfully through the checks.
In the Kaliningrad Region, in Sovetsk, the grandparents were waiting for their grandchildren in anticipation of taking them home with them.
Mataitis handed his children over to his in-laws and had already turned around to go back when all hell broke loose. A group of uniformed and masked men apprehended him, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.
It soon became apparent that these men had flown from Moscow, especially for this operation and were from the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).
Journalists, who it would seem had been summoned beforehand, filmed and photographed everything. Mataitis was them bundled into a car and driven off.
His Lithuanian wife, in near hysterics, was left standing at the border with no explanations.
But she didn’t have to wait long. Soon on all Russian television channels, the news was out that Russia had arrested a Lithuanian spy who was gathering military information.
A Lithuanian citizen, who also held Russian citizenship, was charged with treason.
After the arrest, the FSB announced that Eugenijus Mataitis was working for Lithuanian Intelligence to which he was handing over information on Russia’s military system.
It was also claimed that Mataitis confessed to having worked in the Second Department of Operational Services under the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence, engaged in both military intelligence and counter-intelligence.
Mataitis had to wait a long time for the court to reach its verdict. He was held for one year in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison and in July sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and transported to a labour prison deep inside Russia.
We met in the flat of his sister Jolanta tried ceaselessly to get him released.
It’s namely she and other members of the family who made great efforts to have Mataitis returned to Lithuania. She was in contact with high-level politicians and special services.
“I have the best sister in the world,” said Eugenijus Mataitis with a cheery tone.
The ex-prisoner says that they now meet almost every day and endlessly talk and plan.
When asked how he feels about coming home after being away for five and a half years, Mataitis, still at times using Russian words, said that he feels like he hasn’t felt in many years: “It’s already more than a month now and I’ve recovered but during the first days I walked around and looked at everything as if for the first time”.
When did you find out that you might be coming back home and when did the process start?
It was this year on the 25th of September on just a usual evening in prison. They told me to report immediately to the guard. I went. He asked me my surname and told me to collect my things. “They’re taking you away” he kept saying but didn’t say precisely where or when. I collected my things and came back. On the way, I saw the woman who distributed the parcels. We always used to get on well. Just the day before I got a package. She asked me “Where are they taking you?” I told her I knew nothing about it. The sent me off to check the things I had brought to prison. When I went back to the guard’s section the woman working there looked at my documents and said: “You’re going home”. At that time in the prison, they had just started some new program. They’d started to take prisoners to where they lived when they were free or to where their trials had taken place. I thought they were taking me to Kaliningrad because that’s where I had my trial”.
Did your family not know anything yet?
They weren’t aware that the process had already started. Passing of the new laws and granting pardons took place in October only. So I sat in the guards’ section which was equipped with cameras and waited. An officer came in to warn me that I mustn’t take too many things with because I’ll probably be flying out. The whole night I sat and waited and in the morning they ordered me back to my group but to come back again at 12 o’clock. When I came back, the escort was already there.
In which Russian prison were you held?
Novotroitsk where the nearest town is Orsk. They took me however to Orenburg, which is 300 km from the prison. From there they sent an escort only for me. We got to Orenburg in the evening. Again they put me in a room. They said they’d come and fetch me at six in the morning. When I woke up they inspected all of my things and told me to leave everything I could. Yet even then, I didn’t believe I’d be going back home. Around seven in the morning, we flew to Moscow, where they handed me over to another escort that took me to Lefortovo prison. Some officer took me into a separate room where we wrote the request for a pardon. They took me to Lefortovo on Friday. I stayed there the weekend and on Monday they told me that someone from the Lithuanian embassy had come to see me.
He told me that Lithuania had decided to exchange me for a Russian intelligence agent and so return me to Lithuania. He didn’t give an exact date but just said that both countries had already agreed on it and he told me to wait. I was at Lefortovo for about a month. I spent ten days alone in a quarantine cell and then they transferred me to a double cell. On the 13th of November after dinner, the door slot opened and an official asked me for my surname: “Get ready. They’re transferring you after dinner”. Just before that, I had seen on television, on the “Euronews” channel that Lithuania was preparing to accept a Law of Pardon.
I thought then that things were going to move much more quickly. That evening they transferred me to another cell. They inspected my items. Sometime later a colonel came, who introduced himself as the head of Lefortovo Prison. He asked me if I had all of my things and ordered me to get ready, saying that in the morning, they are taking me out of prison. Later on, other officials came with documents for me to sign. They also gave me money which according to Russian law, is due to people being released, depending on the prison. The money is for ex-convicts to be able to return to their place of residence.
How much was it?
5 thousand roubles (73 euro – editor). I signed all of the documents and starting waiting for morning to come. That night I could neither sleep nor read. Around 4 in the morning, the door opened. They asked me if I was ready and took me out. They asked me why I was still wearing prison clothes. I explained that I didn’t have any others. They asked me why I didn’t get back the clothes I was wearing when I arrived in prison. But then it was explained to me: as long as I am a convict I don’t get civilian clothes. They didn’t let me change and I could only take along 7 kg. Those clothes would’ve been additional weight. When I left the room two minibuses were waiting in the Lefortovo yard. They told me to sit in the first one. I think that Aristidas Tamošaitis and the Norwegian were in the other one. By the way, I first found out about the Norwegian when I was in Lefortovo. I read in a newspaper that Norway had requested that he be exchanged for some Russian intelligence agent. They drove us directly to the aircraft. They boarded and seated us first and then let the other passengers on board.
Did you fly business class?
No (laughs). That’s where I saw Tamošaitis and the Norwegian for the first time. We greeted each other. We were all happy we were going back home, but we were all warned not to talk to each other. We sat separately. They put me in a three-seater row. A Lithuanian was sitting behind me and there were two Russians to the side of him, then me and two Russian security officials and then the Norwegian with some security man next to him. There were several other people in the aircraft who were part of our group. They were all in civilian clothes. When we arrived in Kaliningrad, there were already several minibuses, SUVs and masked men waiting for us. Some of the officials who had accompanied us from Moscow stayed behind; others drove up to the border. This time they placed me in the same minibus as the Norwegian. A masked official with a machine gun drove with us. When they warned us in the aircraft not to talk to each other, we didn’t attempt to anymore and we drove in silence. Driving in convoy, we arrived at the border just afternoon.
Where did the exchange take place?
On the Curonian Spit.
In old Soviet films, spy exchanges are portrayed as following a strict procedure. Was that the case here?
Yes, nothing’s changed. When we got to the border, we were told to get out. We waited for a while near the minibus. Then we were instructed to walk up to the white borderline. While we were walking, the two Russians for whom we were being exchanged approached from the Lithuanian side. They like an official accompanied us. They asked us if we were ready. We said, “We’re ready”. The official who was standing with us then said: “That’s it. Go well”. At that moment, we stepped across that white line.
Was there any contact between the Russian and Lithuanian officials? Didn’t one say anything to the other, shake hands?
None at all. We didn’t stand opposite each other but one to the left and the other to the right; I didn’t see much; not how many officials met us or who they were. A border guard or someone from the embassy met me immediately because I had arrived without any documents. The border services stamped a document that had been issued. I was then put in a car and driven away.
Did all three of you who had been released ride together?
No, I don’t know what’s happened to the others – I haven’t seen them since.
Can I ask you where they first took you? Maybe to a safe place?
Ask, I’ll tell you. We first went to a hotel in the country outside Kaunas which, as they had told me, my family had chosen so we could all meet. My wife, children, mother and sister, were all there. They were all so happy and wouldn’t stop hugging me. We spent a few days there and then we went to Vilnius. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to see anybody except my family.
How old are your sons?
One will turn eighteen in January, and the other is nine years old. They grew up while I was in prison. I now have to learn to interact differently with them.
So you returned to Lithuania still wearing prison clothes?
Yes. I had to buy everything new.
What’s it like to be free?
Oh, I can’t imagine speaking about it. It all seems to me like a dream which I don’t want to wake up from. What if I open my eyes and realise I’m still there, in prison?”
Let’s go back to when you were behind bars. When was it most challenging?
It was never easy. With each day you just don’t know what to expect and hope for. It was tough without my family. In prison, you think a lot about things. It’s that kind of moment when you start looking at your life from the outside. When I first ended up in prison in Moscow, those bars and barbed wire drove me mad. I was in Lefortovo prison for about ten months up until the trial. After that, they flew me from Moscow to the trail in Kaliningrad. After the trial, I spent another two months there. In June they flew me again to Moscow, this time to Medvedkovo prison. I stayed there for ten days. I went by train from Moscow to my permanent place of imprisonment. At first, to Samara and then to Orenburg. Afterwards to a colony in which I spent four and a half years.
What kind of prison was it and what were the people there like?
There were all kinds of prisoners there – murderers, rapists, drug addicts. This prison was by no means exclusive.
Did you stay in a single cell?
There aren’t cells there. Each floor has its own group in which there are about 100 people. There are rooms like in a student residence. Each room accommodates about 10 to 15 people.
In Russian prisons, prisoners are put to work. Did you do any work?
I worked for about half a year only. I made uniforms for railway workers. Later they stopped it and said I was not allowed to work.
So what then did you do all day?
I read and exercised a lot.
It’s going to be challenging to get back to work. You fall out of habit. I still remember (he laughs)
What was the food like?
Oh, don’t ask. The food was terrible. If I didn’t have money it would have been really difficult. My family helped me as much as they could. I used to get parcels and money for small expenses. You could buy this and that in the prison shop. There was fruit but you had to hunt for it and grab it when it came.
Did you dream of having a specific kind of food when you returned home?
I wanted roast chicken. We’d sometimes get smoked chicken in the prison shop but it didn’t taste like the one in Lithuania.
Do you smoke?
I did until I was arrested. But when they detained me, I stopped immediately because, in prison, cigarettes and tea are the most valuable currency. I didn’t want to be dependent on anybody.
During your time in prison, did anybody or some official from the Lithuanian embassy visit you or attempt to visit you?
As far as I know, there were some attempts. After I was arrested when I was in Lefortovo, they said that someone from the Lithuanian embassy did try to visit me. The thing is that I have both Lithuanian and Russian citizenship and I was arrested in Russia and so that’s where I held citizenship. The powers that be decided with whom I could or couldn’t meet, decisions which were not in my favour.
Will you nevertheless talk about why you were arrested?
No, I don’t want to talk about it and not easy to remember. You know, I’ve started a new life now and have original plans. I’m home, and all’s well, that’s the most important thing.
What are your plans? Do you need to start looking for a job and where you’d like to work?
I have an engineering background and studied logistics and so I hope I’ll find a suitable job. But for the time being, life is good and I’m enjoying my freedom. I’ll wait until the holidays are over and then I’ll start looking.
Are you going to get any compensation or financial support from the state?
No. The people who met me at the border said that they would come and see me and talk to me. It’s still too soon though and so I haven’t met with anyone as yet. Don’t misunderstand me – I have no claims or expectations. There are much more essential things in life. By the way, when I got back, the state services took care to give me a thorough health check.
Do you still have dual – Lithuanian and Russian – citizenship?
At this point, I don’t know. I am a Lithuanian citizen – I was born and grew up here and my family live here. When I left Russia, they presented me with a whole lot of documents that I had to sign. One of the points stated that I was persona non grata in Russia. But I don’t care anymore.
But your wife’s parents, your sons’ grandparents still live in Kaliningrad.
If I can’t go there, they’ll come here. It’s not far away.
Do you consider those years lost or was it a painful but invaluable experience?
Now that I’m back home, I see everything differently. The biggest regret is how much my children have grown and changed. It’s that that keeps me thinking about the lost years.
Are you going to stay in Lithuania or do you have any other plans?
I was born and grew up here, and so I have no plans to leave Lithuania. I’ve already been far from home (he laughs).
What advice would you give anybody who finds themselves in that situation?
It all depends on the person. You need to have some emotional endurance. And of course, hope and faith that everything will work out.
Are there any people whom, because of what happened, you’ll never forgive or to whom you are incredibly grateful?
I’d like to thank President Nausėda and the state services that took action and helped in my release. I want to thank my family which did everything possible for me to get back to Lithuania. I am grateful to Lithuania which helped my family and children while I was in prison.
What kind of day are you having? Do you sleep a lot?
No, I have always woken up early. I don’t like sleeping for a long time. Every day I take my youngest son to school. He always asks me “Dad, let’s go somewhere, trust me or can you help me with my lessons?” It’s then that I see how much he missed me.
Does your son ask you about your time in the Russian prisons?
My older son knows where I was but not the younger one. I haven’t as yet told him anything about it. My younger son was told that I left to go and work. At times when I was able to phone home from prison, he’d ask: “When are you coming back from work? Just leave and come back quickly to mom and me”.
At this point in time, I don’t want to go anywhere. Their best thing for me now is enjoying being at home. I had a lot of time to think about my life from another aspect. Before it was all about work, I remember, my wife used to ask me: “We’re going to the lake, let’s go somewhere for a walk”. Then I wouldn’t feel like it, or I had too much work, or I was tired. And then when I ended up over there I remembered those things all too well. After all, that’s happened I just want to live here and now. I don’t want to wait for better weather or for something better to come along.