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A man looks at a computer screen showing logos of Russian social network VKontakte. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)
A man looks at a computer screen showing logos of Russian social network VKontakte. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)

A Russian social network tale: Censorship and a CEO on the run Add to ...

Most chief executives in Russia would squirm upon receiving a letter from the country’s federal police demanding access to client information. Not Pavel Durov.

The 29-year-old founder of Russia’s hugely popular social media network, VKontakte, which means “in touch,” has a history of thumbing his nose at authority. So when the Federal Security Service, or FSB, came calling last April seeking personal data on Ukrainians who were using VK to vent their fury at Moscow, he reacted in trademark Durov fashion: He said no and took to his own VK page to post the FSB’s letter for all to see, along with another one from a prosecutor demanding VK shut down the page belonging to political activist Alexei Navalny. He added that his conscience wouldn’t allow him to take part in “political censorship.”

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This wasn’t Mr. Durov’s first brush with the authorities. But this time there were consequences.

Five days after his posts, Mr. Durov found himself removed as VK’s CEO and he’d fled the country. His abrupt departure left the website in a state of turmoil that’s still unfolding, ensnaring some of the country’s most powerful business figures. It also comes as President Vladimir Putin has begun tightening his grip on the Internet, leaving VK’s future in doubt.

The story of how Mr. Durov and VK came to this predicament is a tale of the rise of a social media phenomenon, the high-stakes corporate battles to control it, and Russia’s wider fight for free online expression under a heavy-handed regime.

The social networking site is often likened to a Russian version of Facebook, but it is more than that. In Eastern Europe, VK rules. With more than 260 million registered accounts and 60 million daily users, it dwarfs Facebook and other networks in the region. And it has grown into a go-to space for young Russians to share their thoughts and, often, their political frustrations.

Russia’s Facebook moment

Mr. Durov is often called the Russian Mark Zuckerberg and there are some similarities. Both began building social networks while at university, and both originally envisaged the sites as serving students searching for classmates. But there is much more to Mr. Durov, who was born in St. Petersburg but spent much of his childhood in Italy while his father Valery, a noted philologist, worked in Turin.

At first, Mr. Durov appeared to be following his father’s footsteps, studying philology at St. Petersburg State University and planning to become a translator. In his spare time, he created an online library for fellow students to help them share books and notes. That morphed into an online discussion forum and by 2005 the groundwork for VK had been laid. He officially launched the site a year later with help from two friends: Lev Leviev, who studied at McGill University in Montreal, and Viatcheslav Mirilashvili, a former university classmate who had gone to the United States. Within one year, VK had three million users and was well on its way to beating Facebook at its own game.

As VK grew, Mr. Durov became legendary for his colourful personality. He earned a reputation as a self-described libertarian who shunned smoking and drinking. He made no secret of his adoration for the Matrix movie trilogy and counted Steve Jobs and Che Guevara among his heroes.

His company developed a similarly flamboyant culture. VK operated out of the top floors of St. Petersburg’s historic Singer House, an iconic building known for its glass dome and giant globe. In keeping with startup stereotypes, its staff enjoy bean bag chairs, a Ping Pong table, a crossbow for target shooting and a boardroom decked out like a torture chamber. Mr. Durov took some flak in 2012 when he and some colleagues drifted paper airplanes made from 5,000 ruble notes ($155 U.S.) out the windows, causing scuffles among the crowds below. Mr. Durov later explained that he was showing his contempt for money.

Under his direction, and with a group of bright twentysomethings, VK’s user base grew quickly by offering a Facebook-like platform rooted in the Cyrillic alphabet. Soon no one in Eastern Europe could afford to ignore VK including famous athletes and Hollywood celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Tom Cruise and Shakira who created pages on the site to tap into their Russian fan base.

But given Mr. Durov‘s free spirit and attitude toward authority, it wasn’t long before VK ran into powerful opponents. A turning point came in late 2011 during growing tension across Russia in the wake of parliamentary elections that returned Mr. Putin to power.

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