Something strange is happening with Vkontakte, Russia’s homegrown version of Facebook. In the last couple of months, the company’s founder and current head, Pavel Durov, has suffered three very public “kicks in the teeth,” one of which might even lead to criminal charges.
First, on March 27, 2013, there was Novaya Gazeta’s Andrei Kolesnikov, who published [ru] hacked emails supposedly written by Durov and former Vkontakte Press Secretary Vladislav Tsyplukhin, addressed to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s former chief ideologist. In those emails, Durov and Tsyplukhin indicate Vkontakte’s secret cooperation with federal police to suppress the online organizing efforts of the country’s political opposition in December 2011.
Second, on April 5, 2013, someone driving a white Mercedes registered to Vkontakte Vice President Ilya Perekopsky disobeyed a police officer [ru] on the streets of St. Petersburg, actually hitting the traffic cop with the front of the car, in a frustrated effort to change lanes. (See dashboard video footage here [ru].) When police pursued, the driver booked it on foot, escaping thanks to the efforts of his private bodyguard, who stayed behind to intervene and prevent a chase. About a week later, police identified Durov as the man behind the wheel. Within days, law enforcement officers descended on Vkontakte’s Petersburg office and Durov’s apartment (though he was present at neither). Shortly thereafter, Petersburg investigators called in Durov for questioning on April 19. When he didn’t show up, investigators called him in again on April 22. Again, the Vkontakte creator was a no-show.
Third, on April 21, 2013, Dozhd Television’s Leonid Parfenov announced [ru] that Durov had relocated to Buffalo, New York, where he is working through a new company called “Digital Fortress” on a new social network that will compete directly with Vkontakte, adding, “It’s clear that [Durov] has no intention of returning to Russia.” Parfenov’s bombshell came four days after a major shakeup [ru] in Vkontakte’s ownership, when investment group United Capital Partners bought up the shares cofounders of Lev Leviev and Viacheslav Mirilashvili (the original startup money behind Durov’s original vision), giving UCP 48% control of the company. UCP’s president, Ilya Shcherbovich [ru], is a man said to have strong ties to the Kremlin, given his seats on the boards of directors at state-owned industrial giants Rosneft and Transneft. In the April 21 television broadcast, Parfenov interviews Shcherbovich and airs a statement from Leviev and Mirilashvili, all of whom deny any hostile intentions against Durov. (Indeed, Shcherbovich says UCP wants to see Durov remain Vkontakte’s head.) After the show, Durov immediately denied [ru] Parfenov’s emigration insinuation and clarified that Digital Fortress is working on a cloud-storage side project that does not compete with Vkontakte.
Russia’s mighty independent media
Reading Westerners’ descriptions of the Russian media is an experience much like looking up the word “bad” in a thesaurus. Critics frequently except from their denunciations certain “respected” newspapers that focus on business, like Kommersant and Vedomosti. Novaya Gazeta is another publication that often gets a pass, thanks largely to its investigative journalists, many of whom have exhibited great bravery over the paper’s twenty-year history. Past Novaya reporters like Anna Politkovskaya (assassinated in 2006) are key to its reputation today as a newspaper many consider to be beyond reproach. In other words, when Novaya Gazeta publishes leaked emails implicating Pavel Durov and Vkontakte in secret cooperation with the Kremlin, it carries the force of Politkovskaya’s ghost and two decades of “speaking truth to power.”
Not everyone sees it that way, however. Anton Nosik, one of the most influential and established figures on the Russian Internet, wrote [ru] on LiveJournal on March 28 that Novaya’s exposé was a lie—an example of mercenary journalism (“zakazukha”). In that post, Nosik cites a series of Novaya Gazeta articles published in 2002 that were in fact part of coordinated media campaigns [ru] by warring business interests.
On April 5 (the same day as the white Mercedes incident), Novaya published a follow-up [ru] to its March 27 article, this time focusing on Kremlin-cooperation by Tsyplukhin and “The Twitter Journal,” a Web project [ru] that received its $25 thousand startup funding from “Start Fellows”—a grant program administered by Durov and investor Yuri Milner. (Later that day, Tsyplukhin apologized [ru] and admitted that this second batch of leaked emails is genuine.) On April 6, firebrand radio host Yulia Latynina criticized [ru] Nosik’s March 28 comments, calling him a “friend” of Durov’s and highlighting that Nosik’s 2002 zakazukha example is eleven years old. On April 9, Nosik responded again, publishing a 2,500-word monster [ru] on his LiveJournal blog, addressing both Novaya’s more recent past and the details of its suspiciously anti-Durov reporting.
Nosik dissects Novaya
“If this had been any other newspaper,” Nosik writes, “a leak like this coming from a journalist would have been fact-checked by colleagues with some [technical] expertise.” Indeed, Novaya’s March 27 article says nothing about how Kolesnikov obtained the hacked emails, and the paper offers no way to verify their authenticity. Strangely, Novaya presents this sensitive content as image files [ru] containing print-view text, without any DKIM-signature. (The April 5 follow-up leak, featuring emails written by Tsyplukhin but not Durov, did contain the messages’ digital signature data.)
And then there is Durov’s email itself, which begins rather ludicrously:
Как вы знаете, мы уже несколько лет сотрудничаем с ФСБ и отделом «К» МВД, оперативно выдавая информацию о тысячах пользователей нашей сети в виде IP-адресов, номеров мобильных телефонов и другой информации, необходимой для их идентификации.
As you know, we’ve already been working for a few years with the FSB and the MVD’s special division “K,” promptly supplying information about thousands of our network’s users in the form of IP addresses, mobile phone numbers, and other information necessary to identify them.
If Durov—often described as a genius, not unlike Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—had indeed collaborated with the Kremlin, would he really have announced it so plainly in a letter to Vladislav Surkov? Remarking on this curiosity, Maria Sergeyeva joked [ru] on Facebook that “only the lobotomized” write phrases like “we’re working with the FSB” in official documents. (Sergeyeva also mentions that Surkov is famous for refusing any letters longer than a single sheet of A4 paper, whereas the note allegedly authored by Durov runs a whopping four pages.)
Nosik also takes issue with Novaya’s peculiar presentation. For instance, its April 5 article features 18 emails written by Tsyplukhin about “The Twitter Journal,” but the headline instead takes aim at Durov’s company (“Micro-gods [a play on “microblog” in Russian] Are Vkontakte [In Contact] with Staraya Square [the Presidential Admistration]”), as though Tsyplukhin was scheming on Durov’s behalf. Novaya’s tenuous implication (by pun no less) seems to be that the Start Fellows program incriminates Vkontakte in Tsyplukhin’s dirty dealings with the Kremlin.
Nosik concludes his post with a scathing attack on Novaya Gazeta as a relic of Russian journalism from the 1990s, speculating that certain powerful people have decided at last to poison the country’s burgeoning Internet culture:
А сейчас какие-то люди, для которых ведение чёрных PR-войн является привычным занятием, решили влезть с этой дубиной в Интернет. И мне не очень важно, кто эти негодяи: володинские они, сурковские, малофеевские, или чьи-то ещё. Мне в любом случае не хочется, чтобы они тащили это своё говно в Рунет. Мне хватает Единого реестра и уголовных дел против блоггеров.
But now certain people, for whom running black publicity wars is an ordinary job, have decided to butt in on the Internet with this bludgeon. And it doesn’t matter to me who these scumbags are: Volodin’s people, Surkov’s, Molofeev’s, or someone else’s. Whoever they are, I don’t want them dragging their shit onto the RuNet. I’ve had enough of Internet Blacklists and criminal cases against bloggers.
Not a straightforward conspiracy?
On April 19, after learning that UCP now owns almost half of Vkontakte, Nosik again addressed the scandals surrounding the company, announcing somewhat unexpectedly [ru] that he doesn’t think the shareholders shakeup (which is rumored to have cost UCP roughly $700 million) is the reason for the media campaign against Durov. (Though, Nosik does harbor certain suspicions about UCP’s self-reported $3.5 billion under management, asking distrustfully whose money it is, if none of the investment fund’s five founding partners is worth even a fraction of that.)
Nosik points out that Durov’s partners, Leviev and Mirilashvili, made no secret about their long-held desire to cash out and disinvest from Vkontakte. Indeed, this tension features prominently in Nikolai Kononov’s 2012 book [ru], “Durov’s Code: the Real Story of the Social Network ‘Vkontkate’ and Its Creator.”
Just days later, on April 22, Kononov himself weighed in on Durov’s current crisis, offering five potential conclusions [ru] to the story. In the most probable scenario (which Kononov amusingly assigns a “95% likelihood”), Vkontakte’s majority shareholders sue Durov over his Digital Fortress project (which turns out to be a sleek instant messenger app), and Durov must sell off his remaining Vkontakte shares at a depreciated price to pay the legal damages.
Throughout his tenure at Vkontakte, Pavel Durov has not shied from controversy. In July 2011, after billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s Mail.ru Group expanded its Vkontakte ownership to 39.99%, Durov fought bitterly to maintain control of the company, refusing to acquiesce to Usmanov’s stated desire to buy out Leviev and Mirilashvili. On July 22, Durov posted [ru] to Instagram a photo [ru] of himself gesturing obscenely at the camera, captioned, “[My] official response to the trash-holding [fund] Mail.ru regarding its latest attempt in vain to swallow Vkontakte.” Shockingly, Usmanov backed down [ru], apparently impressed by Durov’s gall (or perhaps instructed by the Kremlin to lay off). In April 2012, Mail.ru Group granted Durov full stewardship of its shares [ru], giving him majority control of Vkontakte, dependent of course on Usmanov’s continued good graces.
In early December 2011 (at precisely the time that Novaya’s article would have us believe he was writing love notes to Surkov), Durov tangled with St. Petersburg’s FSB, which had requested that Vkontatke delete seven groups on its network that were directed at organizing Russians against United Russia at the height of the Winter Protest Movement. Repeating his stunt against Mail.ru Group, Durov went public with the FSB’s request, posting a scan [ru] of the official police petition, along with a humorous image [ru] of a dog wearing a hoodie (reminiscent of Durov’s trademark cartoon dog).
Rather than ban oppositionist groups, Vkontakte actually lifted network restrictions [ru] on its groups, allowing them to host more than the 16,384-posts-per-day limit. Later that night, government investigators and camouflaged police special forces came knocking on his door, demanding entry to his apartment. Durov didn’t let them in, and the authorities left and never returned. (Durov’s bodyguards later told Nikolai Kononov that they nearly opened fire on the police, fearing they might attempt to breach the door by force.)
Days after this incident, Durov penned an open letter [ru] explaining his defiance as an act of business savvy, arguing that the FSB had tried to handicap Vkontakte in an area that foreign social networks operate freely. Clearly uncomfortable with his newfound status as a hero of the protest movement, Durov tried to reclaim his identity as a more ambiguous, business-focused figure:
Те, кто бросились благодарить нас за содействие политическим протестантам, теряют из вида простое обстоятельство. Если бы в те же дни мы стали проигрывать в конкурентной борьбе из-за отсутствия какого-нибудь сервиса виртуальных массовых репрессий, нам бы пришлось ввести и его. И будьте уверены – наши репрессии были бы самыми массовыми и самыми кровавыми на рынке.
Those who rushed at the chance to thank us for aiding the political protesters are losing sight of a simple fact. If in that same period, we’d started to lose our competitive edge because of a lack of some kind of virtual mass repression service, then we’d have introduced one of those, too. And rest assured, our repressions would be the most massive and most bloody on the market.
In yet another stockholders scandal, Durov revealed [ru] in November 2012 that Konstantin Malofeev [ru] (then head of Marshall Capital Partners and a trustee at the League for a Safe Internet) had ordered media attacks on Vkontakte in August earlier that year, exploiting his position at the League to accuse Vkontakte of hosting large amounts of child pornography. Malofeev, it seems, tried and failed as Usmanov had a year before to buy out Leviev and Mirilashvili. Durov says that the media campaign against Vkontakte stopped on a dime the moment that he approached Malofeev for negotiations, and restarted the moment those talks broke down.
Western coverage of Durov’s current predicament largely assumes that forces loyal to the Kremlin have swooped down on Vkontakte to claim the country’s biggest social network for federal police, who have clearly demonstrated their interest in controlling the website’s capacity to mobilize opposition sentiments. Miriam Elder of the Guardian writes that recent events have occurred “amid fears the Kremlin is looking to tighten its grip on the Internet,” adding that “Kremlin fears over the Internet have grown since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin last year amid an unprecedented wave of protests.”
Nevertheless, almost half [ru] of Vkontakte has belonged to Mail.ru Group for nearly two years already, and Usmanov’s ownership has been above 30% [ru] since 2010. In all those years, Durov’s reign over the company, however colorful and rebellious, has depended entirely on the support of Russia’s richest oligarch [ru]. That being the case, what does the Kremlin gain from engineering “black PR” attacks on Durov? How does defaming Vkontakte for FSB collaboration “tighten the Kremlin’s grip on the Internet”?
It’s a tired trope in Russian politics to draw stark generational lines when discussing the country’s development. Alexey Navalny did it when he finished two-weeks imprisonment in December 2011 and declared that he’d entered jail in one country and emerged in another. Anton Nosik does it when he labels Novaya Gazeta an antique of the 1990s, and nods to the great mass of the Internet as a media culture reborn. Current attitudes about Pavel Durov and Vkontakte aren’t so different. People want to believe that “the Russian Facebook” and the promise of the Internet represent something new that can bring about a break with the past.
Remember, however, that Dozhd TV—the opposition’s foothold in televised media—was also a willing participant in (or at least enough of a sap to join) the PR campaign against Durov. Moreover, many netizens were ready to believe Novaya’s anti-Durov publications, despite the supposed outmodedness of 1990s journalism in today’s Internet age. Oleg Kashin, for instance, theorized [ru] on April 5 that a staff member working for Surkov’s replacement had spotted the incriminating emails in a random archival sweep and sent them over to Novaya Gazeta for his own entertainment.
Whoever is behind the media campaign and whatever its significance to Russian society, Durov’s legal strategy regarding the traffic incident in St. Petersburg seems to mirror his approach in December 2011, when police first came banging on his doors: he’s simply not answering. According to the Kremlin-friendly daily Izvestia, Durov’s plan could actually pay off. That newspaper published an article [ru] last week on April 26, indicating that Petersburg investigators might close the case on the white Mercedes, if they’re unable to reach Durov by early June. Is this casual speculation, or could it be a message to Durov to stay away? Will he?