Pavel Durov, the 29-year-old founder of VKontakte, Russia’s biggest social network, has finally left the company less than a month after pretending to resign as part of an apparent April Fool’s joke.
That fake resignation came back to haunt Durov, as VK shareholders forced him out of the company based on a technicality brought about by the events on April 1.
VKontakte (VK), which means ‘in touch’ in Russian, was founded in 2006 and became the country’s largest social media platform. Its 88 million Russian users far outstrips Facebook’s own 8 million base and the website has a membership of 143m worldwide.
But changing ownership led to a deep rift within the company – namely between ‘ the Russian Mark Zuckerberg’ Durov and investment firm United Capital Partners (UCP), which owns a 48% stake in VK. Durov has long championed Internet privacy and VK’s political impartiality, while UCP founder Ilya Sherbovich is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, and is said to be keen to bring the platform in line with the Kremlin.
Speaking last June, political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko told Bloomberg he wasn’t surprised that Moscow wanted a friendly face inside VK. “Of course the Kremlin wants loyal owners at VK,” Minchenko said. “Putin’s entourage knows the opposition could use VK’s…users to ignite political strife.” The social network was used to mobilize tens of thousands of people during anti-Putin protests in 2011.
Indeed Durov, whose brother Nikolay left as technical director of VK last year, stated in his original April 1st resignation that he was finding it “increasingly complicated to stick to the principles we founded our social site upon.” Durov recently sold his 12% stake in the site to Ivan Tavrin, CEO of Russian telecoms firm MegaFon.
Tavrin subsequently sold the stake to Mail.ru, itself controlled by USM Holdings, a company founded by billionaire Alisher Usmanov. The sale gave USM a controlling 51.99% stake in VK.
In December that year Durov refused to comply with requests by Russia’s Federal Security Service to block opposition-linked groups’ VK pages. “The global threat of ‘Big Brother’ can actually be conquered purely by technology,” asserted Durov at a conference last October. That was when he founded Telegram, a cloud-based messaging service whose motto is “Taking back our privacy”.
Born in St. Petersburg but educated in the Italian city of Turin, Durov is a vegetarian and follower of Taoism. His father is one of Russia’s eminent philologists, and his own fortune is estimated at approximately $280m – some of which he infamously threw out the window of his office in May 2012.
VK’s founder is now out of Russia and planning to build a new mobile social network, he told TechCrunch. “I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” he said. “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.”