MOSCOW —Russia’s version of Mark Zuckerberg, VKontakte founder and CEO Pavel Durov, is out of a job.
After what he describes as a long, under-the-carpet battle with Kremlin-linked forces who tried to force him to turn over user data to Russian secret services, Mr. Durov posted on his personal VKontakte page Monday that he found out from the media that he was fired, and criticized shareholders for not having the “courage” to do it to his face. He added that “complete control” of the mainly Russian-language, Facebook-like social media site is now in the hands of Igor Sechin, the head of the Kremlin-owned oil company Rosneft, and Russia’s richest man, metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov.
VKontakte claims to have more than 100 million registered users, primarily in the former Soviet Union, which would make it Europe’s biggest social media network.
“Something like this was probably inevitable in Russia, but I am glad that we held out for 7-1/2 years,” Durov said. “We accomplished a lot. And some of what we’ve managed to do cannot be undone.”
It’s been a long and murky saga.
Durov is a flamboyant and sometimes controversial figure who once threw paper airplanes made of 5,000 ruble notes (about $160) from his office window to see how people in the street would react (it reportedly created pandemonium). About a year ago he was accused in a bizarre hit-and-run incident, in which he allegedly ran over a policeman’s foot. He denied it, insisting that he does not even drive a car. While he was under investigation, his partners reportedly sold 48 percent of the company to an investment fund run by a senior executive in the Kremlin oil company Rosneft.
Scrolling down Durov’s VKontakte page reveals the milestones of what he says has been his struggle to protect the data of his users.
He says that in March he resisted orders from the Moscow prosecutor to close down a group run by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. He said he was under “pressure from all sides” to prune Mr. Navalny and his followers from the site, but had held out for weeks. “Neither my team nor I are going to engage in political censorship,” he said. “Freedom of information is an inalienable right in post-industrial society.”
Last week Durov posted that in December he rebuffed demands from Russia’s FSB security service to turn over information about members of the Ukrainian EuroMaidan protest movement who use VKontakte. “To give the personal information about our Ukrainian users to Russian authorities would not merely be against the law. It would be a betrayal of those millions of Ukrainians who trusted us,” he wrote.
As a result of FSB pressure, he said, he was forced to sell his remaining 12 percent stake in VKontakte to a Russian telecom giant whose main shareholder is Mr. Usmanov. At the time he insisted that he would stay on as CEO of VKontakte to “watch over” the company.
But about a month ago he reportedly penned a letter of resignation, to take effect on April 1. He subsequently claimed that he withdrew the resignation, insisting that it should be obvious to all that it was “an April fool’s prank.”
But the directors of VKontakte do not appear to see it that way. In a statement quoted by the independent Interfax agency, they said that “Since the set period of a month has passed and his resignation has not been withdrawn, Pavel Durov’s powers as general director of VKontakte have been terminated.”
The statement also claimed that Durov had been using the company’s resources “to develop his own projects.”
According to the technology news site TechCrunch, Durov has left Russia and plans to work on other projects, including a mobile messaging app that encrypts data to protect it from interception.
“I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back. Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment,” Durov is quoted as telling TechCrunch on Tuesday. “I’m afraid there is no going back [to VKontakte]. Not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They can’t stand me.”
Russia’s Internet is now wide open to official surveillance, says Anton Nosik, a popular Russian blogger.
“Durov resisted all attempts by special services and Kremlin structures to invade his social network. Without him, it looks like any and all personal information will now be handed over on the first request, without any legal basis,” he says. “Durov was our final line of defense, and now he’s gone.”