Vacation rental nightmares: Living with ‘a former KGB spy’ in the room next door
A retired couple in Spain who rented out part of their home on Airbnb now can’t get rid of Felipe Turover, a guest who won’t pay and who has ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin
The first snowflakes of Storm Filomena were coming down in Madrid on January 7, 2021, when a new guest showed up at the door of Eladio and María’s home in Villaviciosa de Odón, outside the Spanish capital.
Like so many others before him, Felipe Turover had booked a room at the Freijo’s residence through the online platform Airbnb. Turover, 56, had a shaved head, an athletic body and spoke perfect Spanish except for his “r” sounds, which suggested a Russian background.
Turover came across as friendly, educated and composed – an ideal guest who was going to stay for just 10 days. The next day, as a snowstorm of historic proportions hit parts of Spain, Turover sent his hosts a message: “Siberia :).” María replied with a snowman emoji. Later, with roads blocked by the snow, Turover asked the homeowners if they needed something from the local supermarket, as he had a four-wheel-drive vehicle that could handle the conditions. He truly seemed like the perfect guest.
But when the retired couple looked up “Felipe Turover” on Google, they discovered that they were renting out a room to an individual with an extraordinary and unsettling past: the search results included phrases like “KGB intelligence agent” (alluding to the secret services under the Soviet Union) and “adventurer from the Kremlin.” Turover seemed to have been a leading character in the political intrigues of the late 1990s that ultimately led Vladimir Putin to power in Russia.
So what was a man who had dabbled in top-level Russian politics doing in the bedroom next to theirs? Were their lives in danger? Would the mafia come looking for him one of these days? These kinds of questions came up every time the couple met with friends and family members, and they came up often because Turover ended up staying well beyond the 10 days he had originally booked. He kept renewing his stay, which extended for months.
His hosts were not overly concerned though, because Turover gave them no reason for it. Sometimes he would bring home gourmet Asian food to share with Eladio and María; he also loved to play with the family dog, a dachshund named Pippa, and nearly every one of his WhatsApp messages to his hosts included affectionate emojis. His favorite one was the praying hands.
María and Eladio also took comfort in the fact that the more than 4,000 search results on Google were all about the distant past. They figured that Turover had been on the side of the good guys. It seemed that Turover had had access to banking information in Switzerland and revealed corruption by former Russian president Boris Yeltsin; this triggered a scandal that ended on December 31, 1999, when Yeltsin resigned and Putin became the new president. It was the beginning of a period in Russian history that continues to this day, 22 years later.
“I thought he was a good man who had helped uncover corruption,” says María. “Plus, he always paid on time and did not cause any trouble.”
But things have changed completely. These days, María and her husband are very angry and concerned. A year after he first showed up at their door, Turover is still living with them, but he stopped paying in September. Exchanges between the sides are kept at a minimum and a tense kind of calm can be felt in the house, similar to the tensions of the Cold War.
The couple opened their door to this reporter on a recent day at dawn.
“Where is he?”
“Upstairs, in his room.”
They figured he would come downstairs soon and perhaps walk into the kitchen to make some tea, at which point he would come face to face with a member of the press. In the meantime, Eladio and María told their story of suffering. Every night, they said, they lock themselves into their bedroom and hear Turover speaking on the phone in Spanish, English, Russian and French.
Eladio, 77, was a high school philosophy teacher and María, 64, used to work in the telecommunications industry. They began renting out rooms in their house five years ago to make a little extra income after María lost her job. In all that time they have had 130 guests and not a single one had refused to pay. And the one guest who will not leave happens to be “an ex-spy” whom they feel intimidated by. Luckily for them, they are not completely alone in the house: there is also Lucy, a young woman from Paraguay who cared for María’s father until the latter’s death in November.
Turover normally leaves the house early and does not get back until dark. They don’t know where he goes. Back when they were on speaking terms, he would tell them that he was going to the gym, to the mountains to meditate or to spend time with his girlfriend. There have been some tense moments since then. Eladio said that a few days ago, Turover told them: “You know I have the upper hand,” apparently alluding to the fact that he is protected by the law.
The couple has resorted to the courts and to the Civil Guard, but to little avail. They’ve been told that Turover cannot be simply kicked out. Instead, they have to wait for an eviction trial that could take months to reach court. Turover already owes them over €3,000 and they have also accused him of document forgery, as for several days he showed them alleged bank slips showing a money transfer to their account. He claimed that the delay might be due to a technical glitch.
Turover has still not come downstairs, and Eladio takes a look outside. “He’s gone!” he cries. Turover has quietly left the premises in his rental car, a Longitude jeep.
A life out of a movie
Turover agreed to speak with EL PAÍS inside the lobby of a Madrid hotel. The excuse was that he is mentioned in Putin’s People, a best-selling book by the British journalist Catherine Belton, who reconstructed the plot by former KGB spies to get rid of Yeltsin, an ill, alcoholic leader viewed by Russian nationalism as a puppet of the West. As the author explained in an interview, she was able to track down Turover, who had slipped under the radar two decades ago. Belton spoke with him for three days in Boadilla del Monte, outside Madrid.
Turover showed up at the hotel with a blonde, elegant-looking woman who was introduced as his “media representative.” He said he wants to write the script for a Hollywood movie. “It’s been some time and now I get to clown around,” he said. The story would not necessarily revolve around him; the main thing would be to narrate events that have gained historical relevance with the passing of the years.
Turover met Putin in the early 1990s, when the latter had quit his KGB job to work in politics as the deputy mayor of Saint Petersburg. Turover said that, unlike Putin, he himself never attended the Yuri Andropov spy academy, but instead studied economics. Yet Turover ended up working for the intelligence services. The British journalist Belton described him in her book as “a former KGB operative.” He was close to Yevgeny Primakov, another ex-spy who became prime minister later that same decade, when the country was going through a period of great unrest due to the dramatic transition from communism to capitalism. According to Turover, in the spring of 1998, Primakov and his associates agreed to take down Yeltsin “to save the country from a civil war.”
Primakov tasked Turover with handing over sensitive information about Yeltsin and other Russian politicians to Swiss prosecutors. In the summer of 1999, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera revealed that part of that information involved Yeltsin and his daughters, and the scandal grew. Turover realized that his own life was in danger. He said that Putin met with him at a Moscow hotel one night in mid-September and coldly informed him over a cup of tea: “You have two weeks to leave the country. If you don’t go, we either lock you away or we liquidate you.” A week later, Turover showed up in Switzerland.
At this point, it is necessary to note that as early as the 1990s, newspaper articles were already labeling Turover as a charlatan, so it is possible that part of his tale, such as the alleged meeting with Putin, is an exaggeration or even a complete fabrication. Shortly after he fled, Yeltsin reached a deal with Putin: he would hand him power in exchange for immunity. A new era had begun.
Son of an eminent translator
Turover’s adventures in Russia and Switzerland in the 1990s are documented in numerous newspaper articles, but until Putin’s People came out, nothing was known about his personal details. For a long time, Turover hid in the Swiss Alps and only very gradually returned to a normal life. He said that during that time he lived off the earnings from shares in a software company that he and a few partners set up in Switzerland.
In 2014, he moved to Spain, where his father lived. Enrique Turover had been a well-known figure in Russian-to-Spanish translation circles who worked as an interpreter for Soviet leaders in their meetings with Spanish-speaking counterparts. Enrique Turover was granted Spanish citizenship by merit in the 1980s on the basis of his services, and obtained authorization from the USSR to move to Spain, where he worked as an interpreter for high-ranking officials, including former Spanish king Juan Carlos. Thanks to his father, Felipe Turover also has Spanish nationality. But family friends say that the two had a very bad relationship. Enrique Turover viewed his son as a loose cannon.
This newspaper has confirmed that until June 2019, father and son lived under the same roof in a semi-detached home in a residential development called Las Eras, in Boadilla del Monte. Neighbors remember the son as a womanizer who would spend his summers by the pool, covered in suntan oil and wearing a Speedo brief. He never paid his community fees, and the father ultimately sold the property to pay back all the creditors.
Felipe Turover’s name shows up on Asnef, a list of debtors shared by utilities and other service providers in Spain. Perhaps that is why he chose to rent out a room through Airbnb, although Turover refused to answer these kinds of questions: “I thought we were only going to talk about politics, not about my life. That’s sensationalism,” he said. “Who doesn’t have a dispute with the traffic authorities or with Airbnb or with someone over having to pay more or less? Maybe I’ve had a few disputes, just like half of Spain has. I’m at your disposal to talk about serious things, not about trash.”
His hosts have found out that Turover also lived at another house without paying the rent, as the Civil Guard told them. He also left a trail of unpaid debt at several car rental companies.
As of the publication of this article, Turover was still living at María and Eladio’s house, but they were barely seeing one another. On New Year’s Eve, he showed up at around 7pm. His hosts were watching TV with one of their daughters and two grandchildren. Turover walked in front of the screen, looking down, and headed for his room without saying a word. “When are you going to pay us?” asked María. He did not even turn around. The man who once hobnobbed with Russia’s elite spent the last night of the year alone and apparently broke.