Enigmatic founder of Russia's largest social network flees the country and his ties to oligarchs

By Dan Raile , written on April 22, 2014

From The News Desk

Until yesterday, Pavel Durov was the boyish founder and CEO of Vkontakte, the dominant Russian social network, which has nearly ten times the number of users Facebook does in that country. He’s ostentatious – he once folded up paper airplanes made of money and threw them from Vkontakte office windows. He’s controversial – he’s been accused of embezzlement, and of running over a traffic cop's foot and fleeing the scene, and had his offices and residence searched. Yesterday, he was ousted as CEO. And now, apparently, he’s in exile.

Today, Durov announced he has fled Russia, citing security concerns after resisting pressure from the Kremlin to share user information from the Vkontakte network. In his public statements he has said that, in particular, the Kremlin had tried to force him to turn over information about Ukrainian citizens and anti-corruption activists in Russia.

All of which goes a long way to bolster the vogue perception of Putin’s Russia as an enemy of free expression and of internet privacy, the President’s televised assurances last week to Edward Snowden notwithstanding.

Durov told Techcrunch today: “I’m afraid there is no going back, not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They can’t stand me.”

What complicates this narrative is that in January, Durov sold his 12 percent stake in Vkontakte directly to telecom giant Megafon’s CEO Ivan Tavrin. At that time he called Tavrin “my friend.”

When, in late March, Tavrin sold that stake to his business partner, Russia’s richest man and Vladimir Putin’s favorite philanthropist, Alisher Usmanov, Durov told Bloomberg that Usmanov’s was a “friendly shareholder interested in the development of VKontakte.”

The sale gave 52 percent ownership in Vkontakte, and thus control. Since that time, Umanov has publicly supported Durov against calls for his resignation by 48 percent shareholder United Capital Partners.

But in his comments today, Durov intimated that he was leaving behind a social network that was under “full control” of Kremlin-friendly forces. In doing so he seems to be betraying his former backer and “friend,” Usmanov.

It’s undeniable that Durov created a social media network that is used often as a platform for dissent (it's also known for hosting an easily accessible pirated movie library.) And it’s entirely conceivable that the Kremlin has pressed Vkontakte in a bid to extent its control of dissent to the internet. What remains murky is why Durov has had a change of heart about Usmanov.

Is it because, now outside the reach of Russian security, he is finally coming clean? Or is he, meteoric business success that he is, pragmatically trying to distance himself from dubious former partners as he develops his next project: a secure, private messaging app?

[Image via WikiCommons]