The founder of Russia’s most popular social network recently described to Mashable how he chose to flee his native Moscow after Kremlin loyalists wrested control of the company away from him.
Pavel Durov, 30, seen by many as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg, created the website VKontakte — which had 69 million monthly users — before drawing the ire of Russian FSB agents when political protest pages began sprouting up.
When Durov refused to shut down the page of activist Alexei Navalny, the FSB showed up at his door with automatic rifles, demanding to be let in.
“I was really scared,” Durov admitted in a rare interview in Brooklyn, NY. “For the first time I thought, ‘maybe I should think about the future – the future of my country and of my company.'”
Durov was never interested in politics — he claims his defiance of the Kremlin when they ordered him to remove the VKontakte pages of activists was more a business decision than a political statement: He simply didn’t want users to become disillusioned and start using another network.
“Since I’m obviously a believer in free markets, it’s hard for me to understand the current direction of the country,” Durov The New York Times in December
After the Kremlin launched a smear campaign against him in 2013 and raided the VKontakte office for company documents, however, “I began to understand that this was political,” Durov told Mashable.
The Kremlin was largely successful in its attempts to damage Durov’s credibility with both users and investors.
But it did get his company.
‘I had no power within the company’
In late 2013, an investment firm in Moscow with connections to the Kremlin bought a 48% stake in VKontakte from two of the company’s biggest investors — a deal allegedly been orchestrated by Rosneft head and Putin loyalist Igor Sechin as a way to exert greater control over the network.
It was then when Durov realised that the Kremlin “was coming after me,” he told Mashable, and he decided to leave for New York via Venice. He returned to Russia briefly after things cooled down, but by that point he had all but completely lost control of VKontakte.
In February 2014, he relinquished administrative control entirely and sold his remaining stake to Putin loyalist Ivan Tavrin, staying on as director general until he resigned from the company for good in April.
“It was time to get out because at that point I had no power within the company,” he said.
When Durov founded the website in 2006, Russian authorities were still tolerant of Internet freedom.
“The best thing about Russia at that time was the Internet sphere was completely not regulated,” Durov told the Times. “In some ways, it was more liberal than the United States.”
Russia President Vladimir Putin’s scepticism of the web spiked in 2011 when people started using the Internet to protest what they believed were rigged parliamentary elections.
“The opinion of the blogosphere … is aimed at undermining people’s trust in the state,” a Kremlin official said that year.
Putin was also suspicious of the global Internet as a platform for foreign espionage. After documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s ability to infiltrate social media networks, Putin dismissed the Internet as a “CIA project” and hinted at plans to create a Russian-run alternative to the world wide web which be easier for the Kremlin to monitor.
Durov has new project called Telegram that’s a secure — and free — messaging app used by around 50 million people (including some Kremlin officials).
He continues to travel extensively because “Me myself, I’m not a big fan of the idea of countries,” he told the Times.
“I’m very happy right now without any property anywhere,” he added. “I consider myself a legal citizen of the world.”
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