Russia's Mark Zuckerberg, Pavel Durov, flees as pressure grows

Founder of popular social media network VK, a regular critic of the government, forced out of company as cronies of Vladimir Putin move in

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 9:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 12:47am


The founder of Russia's leading social media network - a wunderkind often described as Russia's Mark Zuckerberg - has left his post as chief executive and fled the country as cronies of President Vladimir Putin have made steady inroads into the company's ownership.

The slow-motion removal of Pavel Durov from the network known as VKontakte, or "In Contact," is the latest sign that independent media outlets in Russia have become imperiled.

Users on VKontakte were even spreading jokes this week that the new nickname for the "In Contact" website should be "In Censorship".

As one of his final acts of defiance, Durov posted online last week what he said were documents from the security services, demanding personal details from 39 Ukraine-linked groups on VKontakte, also known as VK.

In a televised call-in show last week, Putin equated those critical of Kremlin policy in Ukraine with Bolshevik revolutionaries who rooted for Russia's defeat in the first world war.

VK, which resembles an older version of Facebook, attracts about 60 million users daily, primarily from the former Soviet Union, vastly outstripping Facebook's reach in the region.

It played a role in bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in late 2011 in the wake of widely manipulated parliamentary elections.

The 29-year-old Durov has cultivated a reputation as a rebel willing to stand up to Kremlin pressure, ostentatiously refusing to shut down VK groups linked to the Russian opposition movement or to give out personal information on its leaders.

Since opening in 2006, VK has thrived on the same devil-may-care reputation as its founder. It didn't take long for VK to attract the attention of investors as well as the government. In 2010, one major investor who was friendly with Durov handed his stake over to Group, a holding company owned by Russia's richest man and Putin crony Alisher Usmanov.

That move was followed by a large sell-off by Durov's old allies in April last year to UCP, a company reportedly owned by Igor Sechin, the chief of Russian oil giant Rosneft and a member of Putin's inner circle.

That left Durov, who learned of the deal after it had been signed, as the last remaining holdout. He stayed on as CEO but found himself in stand-offs with its new stakeholders.

That same month, a criminal investigation was opened into Durov's alleged participation in a hit-and-run incident.

In June last year, the case was quietly closed, but the message it sent was clear. In January, he sold his remaining 12 per cent share in the company to Ivan Tavrin, another businessman linked to Usmanov.