Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte.com, has announced on his VK.com page that he has stepped down as the head of the social network — Russia’s largest, with over 100 million users — after he said that it became “increasingly difficult” to run the social network after ownership changes put pressure on the company preserving its freedom of speech ethic.
The tensions between Durov and shareholders of the company have been ongoing for some time now. But as we understand it the tipping point came around the current crisis in Ukraine. Specifically, as we understand it Durov came under strong pressure to shut down VK.com pages related to Alexei Navalny and his supporters and give out private data for Ukraine’s opposition leaders. A source close to the matter described this standoff as a “dead end” for VK.com’s founder.
“I resign as Acting Director General of VKontakte,” Durov wrote in his post.
We have confirmed the news directly with the company itself. “Unfortunately, it’s not a joke,” spokesperson George Lobushkin wrote to me in an email. In a surreal, April Fools’ turn of events, Lobushkin had initially declined to comment, and even Rick Rolled those who tried to click through a tweet to see an “official statement.”
The move is not entirely unexpected. It comes in the wake of Durov selling off his remaining 12% stake in the company in January to Ivan Tavrin, CEO of Russian mobile carrier Megafon. In March, that stake was acquired by Mail.ru, the online portal that already owned a stake in the company, taking its share up to just under 52%. Throughout all of this, Durov had remained in the top position, and Mail.ru had stated that it would not be changing operational control of VK.com as part of the ownership swap.
But there was turmoil nevertheless. While Durov last year was developing a new secure mobile messaging service, Telegram, the other big shareholder of VK.com, United Capital Partners, was claiming that Durov was not fully attending to matters at the social network. At the same time, Durov has been getting increasingly outspoken about mass surveillance and freedom of speech in Russia.
A report in Vedomosti published today notes that in fact the resignation was made a few days ago in private but that an “official” move would not come until the end of the week at a shareholders’ meeting.
All of this, in short, seems to have come to a head now. Here’s a translation of his post, which is in Russian, illustrated with dancing dolphins for an extra kick.
As a result of events subsequent to the change in the shareholding of VKontakte in April 2013, the freedom of the CEO to manage the company has been significantly reduced. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend those principles, which were once laid in the foundation of our social network. Following my brother, who in the middle of last year left the post of technical director, I resign as Acting Director General of VKontakte. Thanks to all the users who have supported and inspired me these seven years. I will continue to participate in VKontakte but formal positions under the new conditions do not interest me. Pavel Durov
Known as “Russia’s Facebook” and loosely resembling the look of an older version of the much bigger social network, VKontakte has a strong position in the Russian market as a platform for people exchanging views on the world — something that may prove to be a growing flashpoint in the months ahead as Russia continues to butt heads with Ukraine, the U.S. and more. VK.com has also developed a place as a key platform for digital media, as one of the most popular places to listen to and share music. At times, that has landed VK.com in some legal hot water, too.
With VK.com, Mail.ru now has controlling shares in three of Russia’s largest social networks, along with Odnoklassniki and Moi Mir.
It’s not clear who would be replacing Durov — we’ve reached out to Mail.ru and VK.com to ask the question. Some names that have been floated include Eugene Gordeev, a managing partner at the VC firm Russian Ventures; and Ilya Sherbovich of UCP.