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How Much Longer Can Russia's Zuckerberg, Pavel Durov, Survive at Vkontakte?

Pavel Durov's "Die Hard" tenure as general director of Vkontakte. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Pavel Durov's “Die Hard” tenure as general director of Vkontakte. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Russia is one of the few nations on the planet where Facebook is not the dominant online social network. Russia’s alternative, Vkontakte (“In Touch”), started out as a simple clone of Mark Zuckerberg’s website, but it’s since grown into a multibillion-dollar company, with celebrated programmers and millions of users throughout the Russian-speaking world. For the last year, however, Vkontakte’s creator and general manager, Pavel Durov, has been at the center of several scandals choreographed to force his ouster.

In April 2013, Durov was implicated in a bizarre car accident that left a traffic police officer with minor injuries. Several liberal media outlets in Russia also published allegations that Durov and Vkontakte had cooperated with the Kremlin to stifle political protests during the 2011-2012 “Winter of Discontent.” Rumors also spread that Durov had fled the country to the United States, where he was supposedly planning the release a new instant messaging application called “Telegram.”

Around the same time, the investment group United Capital Partners suddenly purchased 48% of Vkontakte. It now seems likely that UCP engineered the attacks against Durov, planting the stories in the media, in order to pressure the website’s founder into selling his 12% stock, paving the way to a more pliant general manager, who would be more open to “monetizing” the service.

Pavel Durov on his 26th birthday, 10 October 2010, photo by Gayanz Manukian, CC 3.0.

Today, January 20, 2014, the notoriously Kremlin-connected newspaper Izvestia published an article [ru] claiming that Durov had resigned as head of Vkontakte, taking most of the staff with him to work on the Telegram project. Izvestia also reported that Vkontakte is and has been actively recruiting new technical staff from Mail.ru and Yandex.

Within hours, Vkontakte press secretary Georgii Lobushkin wrote [ru] on his VK page that Durov is not leaving his post as general director, refuting “any contrary reports.” Curiously, before publishing the article, Izvestia reporter Vladimir Zykov did ask [ru] Lobushkin for an official comment on the rumor about Durov’s resignation, but the Vkontakte spokesperson refused to deny the story at the time. (Afterwards, clearly deflated by Lobushkin’s later statement, Zykov wrote [ru] on Facebook that he’s developed an eye twitch and the shakes.)

Several others at Vkontakte have now refuted Zykov’s report, including Durov himself, who told Forbes.ru, “This is disinformation, which well characterizes the newspaper Izvestia.” The head of USM Advisors, which manages Alisher Usmanov’s 40% stake in Vkontakte, also denied [ru] the news about Durov stepping down, though Durov’s relationship with Usmanov has been shaky lately. (In December 2013, Usmanov said in an interview [ru] that he and Durov are working through some “fraternal issues” about managing Vkontakte.)

Despite the responses by Durov, Usmanov’s group, and Lobushkin, some [ru] in the RuNet still think Durov’s departure could be imminent. Even within Vkontakte, there are lingering suspicions. For instance, technical director Nikolai Durov (Pavel’s brother) partly defended Zykov’s Izvestia article, writing in comments [ru] on a Vkontakte post that he suspects the rumors might be true that someone in the company is trying to recruit new programmers, presumably to replace staff after ousting Durov and his team.

Whatever the conclusion of the Durov Saga, it is apparent that divisions within Vkontakte continue to spill into the media, where stories emerge alleging Durov’s conflicts of interest, his illicit use of company resources, and now even his resignation. The reason for the bad blood among shareholders is supposedly Durov’s reluctance to embrace more advertising on the site, but there is also speculation that his loyalty to the Kremlin and its growing insistence on controlling the Internet is too unreliable. How much longer can Durov survive at Vkontakte? Will his adversaries relent before he’s gone or behind bars?

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