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Disruptive tendencies: is Pavel Durov a pirate, a troll or Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg?

Disruptive tendencies: is Pavel Durov a pirate, a troll or Russia's Mark Zuckerberg?

Pavel Durov, the elusive founder of "Russia's Facebook", has turned 30. But will he ever grow out of being the enfant terrible of Russian tech?

10 November 2014
Illustration Jonathan Jones

Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s most popular social network, is an almost mythical figure. In the eight years since the launch of Vkontakte, now VK, in 2006, the multimillionaire and cult hero of the Russian digital elite has been the subject of both rumour and scandal. Durov works for the secret service. Durov is going to sell VK. Durov is a vegan. Durov only takes public transport. Durov hit a police officer with his Mercedes. Durov hates old people. Durov has a secret child.

The endless speculation, which has emerged in part because of his refusal to give interviews to the media, can be traced back to VK’s early days. When the social media website began to gain popularity, rumours on internet forums claimed that Durov wasn’t a real person at all but most likely an avatar, the Microsoft Word Paperclip of VK. Others conjectured that he was a fictional character, created by the FSB (the Russian secret service) which had launched the social network to spy on its citizens. In the years that have passed, Durov, who turned 30 a month ago, has emerged from the shadows to become one of Russia’s most colourful — and divisive — characters.

The son of a philology professor, Durov grew up competing with his older brother, Nikolai, an extremely gifted coder and mathematician who he currently works with on Telegram, a clone of the instant messaging service WhatsApp. Following in his father’s footsteps, Durov went on to study philology at Saint Petersburg State University before founding VK after his graduation. Today VK, dubbed “Russia’s Facebook” by the western media, boasts close to 274 million users, predominantly in Russia and the former Soviet republics. What differentiates the network from Facebook is its lax policy towards intellectual property with pirated content, from films to music to e-Books, available to download for free — much to the chagrin of record labels and film studios around the world. Although several record companies are in the process of suing VK for piracy, Durov has supported the website from the outset, citing principles such as freedom of expression and freedom of sharing in its defence.

As the head of a successful social media outfit, the 30-year-old has cultivated a cult persona. He is known for always dressing in black — evoking the figure of Neo from his favourite film franchise, The Matrix — and his preference for music that is both vitriolic and visceral (think bands such as The Prodigy and Rage Against The Machine). Ever since his university days, Durov has come to be known for his provocative, even trolling, behaviour. He has since confessed to posting inflammatory comments — everything from praise for Hitler to sexist remarks — from fake profiles on a Saint Petersburg State University forum, which he launched before VK. “Sometimes I have to start fires,” he said in a rare media interview. “If users agree with you, you’ll feel on top of the world but they’ll just leave. If you argue with them, humiliate them, they’ll come back to prove they were right.”

In the early days, Durov’s trolling was limited to those in the St Petersburg tech scene. In the years that followed, his antics came to be known to a much wider audience. In July 2011, when Russian internet giant Group moved to buy a bigger share in VK, Durov responded to their offer with an Instagram photo of him giving the firm his middle finger. The photo’s caption read: “An official reply to trash-holding company and its recent attempts to take over VK.” The following year he took a swipe at Victory Day, a hallowed day for Russians that marks the surrender of Nazi Germany, by questioning the point of a celebration that put the country back into the hands of a “butcher and executioner”. His comments sparked outrage both online and in the media, with many VK users denouncing him as a traitor and threatening to delete their accounts. Needless to say, the number of users only increased.

Durov was similarly defiant when the state prosecutor demanded a ban on all political opposition groups on VK along with any others that supported the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012. This time he tweeted a photo of a goofy husky dog in a hoodie with its tongue sticking out, an act that he repeated when asked to take down groups that supported the protests in Ukraine this year and last. True to his character, Durov also refused to ban a group which had expressed its dislike for the changes he had made to VK’s equivalent of Facebook’s “wall”. And when pop star Sergey Lazarev accused VK of piracy, Durov tweeted: “Just deleted all of Sergei Lazarev’s tracks from VK. The cultural value of VK’s musical offering has risen significantly.”

Durov’s propensity for playfulness is another trait that has come to define him. When VK was accused of hosting pornography, he temporarily changed his Twitter handle from VK CEO to Porn King. Occasionally though, Durov has been accused of hypocrisy and his actions have veered towards the bizarre. In 2013, leading opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a series of hacked emails between Durov, former VK press secretary Vladislav Tsyplukhin and former Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, which allegedly revealed that the social media network had assented to the FSB’s request to share users’ private data. Later that year, Durov was seen throwing paper planes made from 5,000 rouble ($110) notes from the windows of his St Petersburg office. Although he later claimed the stunt was to prove to his colleagues that he wasn’t motivated by money, his actions were viewed as tasteless and misjudged, not least because it resulted in a fight between passers-by. Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe in Berlin after the incident, he explained his motivations. “Not everybody’s actions are based on ideas,” he said. “Some people’s actions are based on profit. These people on the street clearly showed us that we are pretty much different from the guys downstairs.”

Although Durov’s recalcitrance has won him an army of fans, it has also led to his undoing. His departure from VK, earlier this year, conisted of a curious series of twists and turns. Many tech pundits saw his exit as masterminded by the Kremlin via its cronies, the investment group United Capital Partners and Group, both shareholders in VK. On 1 April 2014, Durov published a lengthy post on his VK page, explaining that he would be leaving the company because his role as chief executive officer had been curtailed and he could no longer defend the principles of freedom of speech on which the website had been founded. Two days later, on 3 April, he published a picture of a Doge dog — the canine equivalent of the lolcats meme — and claimed his previous post was an April Fool’s joke and that he was retracting his letter of resignation. What followed was a series of posts about the legitimacy of VK’s ownership including the illegal sale of the company’s shares. On 21 April, Durov wrote that he had been fired for failing to follow the correct legal procedure for retracting his resignation notice. He added that he discovered he had been dismissed through the media. Three days later, he posted an update, this time on Facebook, informing his followers that he was in Europe with a team of 12 engineers working on Telegram and other projects “with privacy and freedom of speech in mind”. Writing on Facebook, he asked: “What country or city do you think would suit us best? Please feel free to comment below. To give you an idea of our preferences, we dislike bureaucracy, police states, big governments, wars, socialism and excessive regulation. We like freedoms, strong judicial systems, small governments, free markets, neutrality and civil rights.”

Even after his departure, Durov still updates his profile page on occasion with news and inspirational quotes, in particular from Steve Jobs. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” and “Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?” are just a few. Durov’s admiration for Jobs explains many of his decisions, whether in the business or sartorial sphere. Durov too has a fondness for black polo neck sweaters. Like Jobs, Durov too preaches libertarianism, beautiful design, innovation and user freedom. Durov is arguably also a tweaker — the description bestowed upon Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker obituary of Apple’s late CEO. Not only did Durov adapt Facebook’s model for the Russian market, his Telegram app is a clone of WhatsApp with improved features such as anonymity and encryption.

In the prologue to a biography about Durov published in 2012, Russian journalist Yuri Saprikin wrote that the VK founder “isn’t fighting for freedom - he’s proving it with the fact of his own existence”. Indeed, in a letter written on news website in 2011, Durov explained that his refusal to ban opposition groups on VK was a purely business decision made in order to hang on to users. In true trolling style, he added that if VK was in the market of political repressions, the company would not hold back: “Be sure, in that case, our repressions would be the widest and bloodiest on the market.”

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