Meet Pavel Durov: Russia's Zuckerberg

Often described as the Russian equivalent of the eponymous Facebook founder, Pavel Durov is now one of President Vladimir's Putin's harshest critics
By Thomas Shambler
Thu 05 Jan 2017 09:18 AM

Pavel Durov is the entrepreneur behind Vkontakte, Russia's largest social network. He launched the service over a decade ago and watched it grow to upwards of 350 million users.

A champion of free speech, the social network's rise to prominence was always at odds with an increasingly watchful Russian government, and following a power struggle with Russian authorities in 2014, Vkontakte was acquired by businessmen with known links to the Kremlin.

Now, Durov is officially in exile. But that hasn't stopped him from being a thorn in the side of the Russian government, one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest opponents.

Durov built the social network (which translates to 'in touch' in Russian) in his hometown of St. Petersburg, in 2006. Now, he rarely returns, choosing instead to spend his time in Barcelona or San Francisco. While there were rumours the now-shadowy 31-year-old would attend the opening of Moscow's Internet Economy Forum last year; he was a no-show. Testament to the fact that Durov no longer wants his image associated with that of Russia.

After being forced out of the country, he fled with the US$260 million dollar fortune he amassed creating the social network. He put that money to good use, building a little-known messaging app with added emphasis on encryption and security. Today, Telegram has over 100 million users.

Conceived to protect users from governments who may wish to eavesdrop on its population – thanks to stronger encryption system than rival messaging application WhatsApp – Telegram is no stranger to controversy.

In late 2015, following the attacks in Paris, Telegram was accused of being used by militants to help organise the terror attack. Durov responded to criticism by blocking 78 accounts linked to ISIL. When critics in Russia called for Telegram to be banned, Durov responded, "You might as well ban words".

"The French government is as responsible as [ISIL] for this because it is their policies and carelessness that eventually led to the tragedy," he wrote on Instagram. "They take money away from hardworking people of France with outrageously high taxes and spend them on waging useless wars in the Middle East and on creating a parasitic social paradise for North African immigrants." Since his remarks about the French government, Durov has kept quiet about the attacks on social media.

Described as a revolutionary by some, and a maniac by others, the most widely spread story about Durov involves him throwing 5,000-ruble bills (about US$140 at the time) folded like paper planes from his office window in Saint Petersburg. Video of the stunt has since gone viral and has been viewed by millions on YouTube. Known for his distinctive dress sense - he only wears black like the character Neo in The Matrix – Durov is billed as something of an internet Robin Hood.

Russia believed the social network played a crucial role in the pro-European protests in Ukraine. When Russian intelligence service the FSB wanted to collect data on the movement's leaders – using Vkontakte's database – Durov responded by sharing a photo of a dog in a hoodie sticking out its tongue. As he gradually lost control of Vkontakte to investors and companies with ties to the Kremlin, he remained defiant. He posted a series of now-deleted photos on Instagram, in which he gave investors the middle finger.

In 2013, Durov was accused of being behind the wheel of a car that struck a police officer in Moscow (Durov denied the allegations, on the basis that he couldn't drive) and refused requests by police to come in for questioning.

Days after, the Vkontakte office was raided, but Durov and some of his most loyal staff were no longer there. According to The Moscow Times, when asked where he and his team had gone, Durov sent back a GIF from the movie The Social Network that showed Facebook President Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) giving investors the middle finger.

Unbeknownst to the authorities or Vkontakte's investors, Durov had established a secret company in Buffalo, New York, and flew key employees to the US. The secret company was Telegram. In a way, the encryption app was a direct response to the intrusion by the Kremlin into Durov's social network.

Durov has since become a symbol for free speech in Russia. Cases of censorship have multiplied in previous years, under a new law enforcing strict rules for blogs. Under the legislation, any site that gets more than 3,000 views a day must register with a media watchdog and commit to verifying the information it publishes.

According to a report by Agora human rights associations, a blogger from Siberia was recently sentenced to five years in a labour camp, and a three-year ban from the internet, for publishing Pro-Ukrainian videos.

Today, Durov travels around the world with four employees and uses Airbnb to stay in different cities. He changes location every few months and has registered Telegram in several different countries (in order to prevent the company being embroiled in the politics of a single company).

He very rarely speaks on the phone – despite keeping three different phone numbers, which he frequently changes – using his app or encrypted emails for all of his correspondence. He has called Edward Snowden his personal hero and applauded Apple's recent refusal to decrypt iPhones for the FBI.

This time, Durov is determined to keep control of his company – and to see it grow. While 100 million users is a fraction of the one billion people using the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, it's a significant milestone.

A year ago, new start-ups to Telegram were about 100,000 a day. Today, it's over 350,000. WhatsApp was famously acquired for a stunning US$19 billion in 2014 and has since struggled to develop a profitable business model to support its purchase price. But Telegram is not for sale, or even open to investment.

Despite reportedly going through more than US$1 million a month in development costs - with the money coming from his own personal savings – Durov has refused investment offers from some of Silicon Valley's most famous venture capital firms.

With Vkontakte scars fresh in the entrepreneur's mind – and with a larger goal of safeguarding communication from the prying eyes of governments – Russia's Zuckerberg has decided to keep complete control over his messaging app.

There's little doubt that Durov is the quintessential tech entrepreneur on a mission to change the world. But while it must be flattering to be compared to the eponymous Facebook founder, that terminology seems to oversimplify his life and overstates his commercial success. And if anything, it massively understates Durov's personal accomplishments.

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