Russian programmer and entrepreneur Pavel Durov, the creator of social network VK and Telegram Messenger, is a man of principle – despite making some powerful enemies, notably the Kremlin, he refuses to compromise on his belief that everyone is entitled to private communication.
If you haven’t already heard of Pavel Durov, you soon will. He’s been dubbed “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg” and is a self-made tech billionaire who put it all on the line after refusing to give up his principles against censorship and the Kremlin’s interference into people’s free online communication. As a result, he was forced out of his country, expelled from the board of his hugely popular networking site VK (formerly VKontakte), and had no choice but to undersell his stake in the company, yet the 35-year-old’s star has refused to fade. With the subsequent creation of the successful Telegram Messaging app, he has accumulated a net worth of $2.7 billion and he’s now one of the most influential figures in the tech world.
Pavel was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1984 but spent much of his childhood in the Italian city of Turin where his father relocated for work. He eventually moved back to St. Petersburg in 2001 and graduated from the city’s State University’s Philology Department with first class honours in 2006. After watching US-based Facebook’s story unfold, the young Russian wanted to create a more sophisticated social network and started building VK with his older brother Nikolai. “My brother is a genius,” Pavel said. “When we went to Italy, he was on the local television channel as a prodigy who could solve very sophisticated mathematical equations. He was only seven or eight years old but he could solve mathematical problems for kids who were fourteen. He was really advanced in mathematics. He read a lot of literature and so he’s extremely smart…I learned a lot from him. I asked him questions about everything. I am very grateful for that.” After launching the site grew incredibly quickly and already boasted 100,000 members by the beginning of 2007. By July the same year, one million users had signed up and under Pavel’s direction the platform swelled to 350 million members.
When the Durov brothers first developed VK, there weren’t many restrictions imposed by the Russian authorities when it came to the inter- net but as VK started becoming more popular it piqued the interest of some powerful political leaders.
During a contentious period in 2011, when Vladimir Putin made it clear that he wanted to be president for the long haul, scores of Russians used VK to vent their anger and protest against parliamentary elections that many alleged were rigged. This didn’t go unnoticed by Russia’s ruling party, who wanted to muffle the voices of dissent. Pavel received a formal request from the authorities demanding that he block all opposition accounts on the social media platform, but instead on his own VK page he posted an image of a dog sporting a hoodie with its tongue sticking out, calling it his official response to the request. Predictably, the Russian authorities weren’t too amused and sent a SWAT team to raid the entrepreneur’s apartment in St. Petersburg, but it was called off when Pavel refused to open the door.
His troubles didn’t end there, though, as the Kremlin proceeded to try and drag his name through the mud and even took him to court for an alleged hit and run, despite the fact he didn’t own a car or have a driving licence. Pavel stood strong and refused to block the profiles on his platform. Not long after, the Kremlin upped the ante and pro-Putin investors started buying VK shares – Pavel was then ousted as CEO in 2014 and had no choice but to sell his stake in the company for $300 million. This may sound like a huge amount but VK is worth billions. Ever the optimist, Pavel did not let it get to him. Instead, he viewed the situation as a way to win his freedom because he knew that from that point on, any property he owned in Russia could be used against him by the government and he didn’t want to give the politicians any leverage, so he left his homeland, dusted himself off, and immediately started working on his next billion dollar project.