Where does the ousted CEO of Russia's most popular homegrown social network go to crowd-source ideas for a new place to do business? The competition, of course.
"We are choosing a new home," Pavel Durov posted on April 24
on a little-used Facebook account he has held since 2006, the year he launched what would become his profoundly successful Russian-language analogue, VKontakte (VK). "A country that will allow us to develop our projects with privacy and freedom of speech in mind."
The 29-year-old Durov announced on April 22 that he had left Russia after he was forced to sell his ownership shares in VK, which now rests in the hands of two pro-Kremlin oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov and Igor Sechin.
The news -- accompanied by Durov's claim
that he had refused to hand over private user data and the passage of sweeping new restrictions on Internet activity -- has sent a shiver through Russian activists, who depend on the net as a vital communication channel in a part of the world dominated by state-run media.
On April 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin added to the chill, referring to the Internet as a "CIA project"
and vowing to protect Russian interests online.
"If we didn't have the Internet, I'm sure we'd have had a new Iron Curtain by now," says Irina Khalai, who heads a nongovernmental organization in the southern city of Volgodonsk supporting the victims of terrorist attacks. Khalai used her website
and social networks to make powerful contacts abroad and push for restitution for victims of some of Russia's most notorious terrorist acts, including Nord-Ost in 2002 and the 2004 Beslan school siege.
"We distribute all our information through the Internet," says Khalai, who was injured in the 1999 Volgodonsk bombing that some observers believe was orchestrated by Russian security forces to help serve as a pretext for a second Chechen invasion. "The authorities pay attention to what we say, and the fact that we're active on social networks makes them very nervous."
Impure, But Important
With Durov's departure, Russia is losing its claim on a colorful, if unmanageable, wunderkind. Often compared to Mark Zuckerberg, the American founder of Facebook, his boyish looks and penchant for black turtlenecks is in fact more reminiscent of his professed idol Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple.
A self-described ascetic who forgoes meat, alcohol, and cigarettes, Durov -- whose personal fortune before his shares were sold for $420 million was estimated at $300 million -- nonetheless earned a reputation for extravagant gestures, including a highly publicized incident
in which he tossed paper airplanes crafted from 5,000-ruble notes from the window of VK's St. Petersburg headquarters.
VK's popularity, due in large part to a vast database of pirated movies, music, and games, also rested on its design, which provided users with an easy opportunity to build tight-knit communities at a time when the post-Soviet real-life social fabric was badly frayed. Together with blogging sites like LiveJournal
, VK is widely credited with kick-starting a renewed interest in local activism, serving as a coordination hub for charities and community relief efforts.
Most importantly, it served as a virtual town hall, allowing the political opposition to build up a public base online. It was reportedly two of those communities -- supporters of anti-Kremlin blogger Aleksei Navalny and Ukraine's Euromaidan protests -- that proved Durov's undoing, when he refused to hand over user identities
to the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Durov, a libertarian
who appears to value corporate freedoms above human ones, is not entirely immune to pressure. VK notoriously deleted a support group for independent Belarusian presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau after he was arrested in the wake of highly controversial elections in that country in 2010. Durov also played into the Kremlin's hand by reportedly offering a job to Edward Snowden after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted asylum to the U.S. whistleblower last year.
Even his flight from Russia could be interpreted as a clever marketing strategy aimed at promoting his newest innovation, Telegram, a free mobile messaging app with a secure encryption system, created by a team including Durov's mathematician brother and VK co-founder, Nikolai. The app has gained 40 million registered users in just eight months; its bare-bones website
boasts of "taking back our right to privacy."
Catherine Fitzpatrick, a U.S.-based blogger who writes extensively on Russian and U.S. privacy issues, says Durov cannot be referred to as a "pure opposition figure." Still, she says his retreat from Russia may have a damning effect on VKontakte, which currently claims 250 million registered accounts and remains one of the most important networking tools in the Russian-speaking world.
"If VKontakte were lost, I think that would impact a lot more ordinary people and Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union than we maybe realize," she says. "There are a lot of users and a lot of ordinary people on it, and they form the substrate for the attention to the opposition. They're the ones who pass around all the memes and the clips and the slogans and so on. And that could be a big blow to the opposition, to lose that base that they do have on VKontakte."
For now, many VKontakte users are expected to follow Durov's puckish example and gravitate from VK to Facebook, which has more than 1 billion users worldwide, and allows Russian users to easily connect with friends and contacts abroad.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Facebook, Google, and other foreign firms may eventually see their presence in Russia scaled back or brought under Kremlin control. The State Duma on April 22 passed tough new restrictions on social-networking sites, including a law that obligates all companies engaged in the transfer of electronic messages to register with state communications bodies, and store information on Internet providers located on Russian territory.
Free-speech advocates like the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) say the latest measures are a fresh attempt by Moscow to "silence Kremlin critics." Khalai says her access to Google email (Gmail) account has already become erratic and that a once-popular Russia-based network, Odnoklassniki
, has become overrun with pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukraine spam. "It's like we're going back to 1937," she says. "To ban these types of things in our modern society is just savagery."
Other activists are attempting to remain upbeat. Yevgenia Chirikova, a Moscow-based environmentalist who is one of the driving forces behind attempts to protect the city's Khimki Forest from highway development, says the Internet is "irreplaceable" as an opposition tool.
Chirikova, who famously used a YouTube video
to drum up public outrage after government authorities threatened to seize her children, says grassroots activism in Russia means staying one step ahead of the Kremlin.
In the case of Navalny and opposition website Grani.ru, that has meant developing ever-more innovative ways of providing mirror sites and encrypted channels to their blocked content. For Chirikova, it means limiting her online activity almost exclusively to a privately-developed social network, Activatica
, which she and her supporters have used to organize a number of Russia-wide environmental campaigns, including calls for the release of activist Yevgeny Vitishko, whose efforts to expose the ecological impact of the Sochi Winter Olympics landed him in jail.
"Right now, the only things I use are Activatica and Twitter
. I don't use LiveJournal, because they self-censor and because they closed Aleksei Navalny's blog, so for me LiveJournal doesn't exist anymore. I stopped using VKontakte, because now that Pavel Durov isn't there I don't trust that social network anymore," she says.
"I think you need to create your own thing, and continue in the same spirit as before -- thinking less about restrictions, and more about what just needs to be done."