Pavel Durov, Russia’s Zuckerberg, Is Done Hiding

Photographer: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images
Pavel Durov of Vkontakte speaks during the 2012 Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum in Munich, Germany.

Pavel Durov, who has built Russia’s largest social network, is known as being a bit of a recluse. As the world grew fascinated by the resiliency of Durov’s website VKontakte, which has so far successfully fended off advances by Facebook in Russia, the founder shunned countless opportunities to speak publicly. Before last month, the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia, as he’s known, had appeared on stage at just one technology event in Europe.

Now, Durov is breaking his silence. He was interviewed in front of a captive audience on Oct. 22 at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in San Francisco. The next week, he made a surprise appearance on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe in Berlin and networked at an after party in a nightclub in Mitte, the city’s tech-hipster neighborhood.

The soft-spoken Durov still managed to convey an air of mystery. An unabashed fan of "The Matrix," he showed up to an event at Bloomberg’s office in San Francisco last month dressed in black pants, a black sweatshirt with the hood up and a black scarf. Durov’s world tour isn’t a fully calculated public-relations maneuver. He decided to fly to San Francisco after Yuri Milner, a friend and onetime investor in VK, urged him to attend the conference. The Berlin trip was booked on a whim.

The events became a vehicle for Durov to plug Telegram, a mobile-messaging application he finances. Moscow-based Telegram is similar to WhatsApp, one of the most popular messaging apps — a fact Durov acknowledges. In an interview, he told me that Telegram is different because it’s free, uses a "proprietary-encryption system" and is not supposed to be a moneymaker. Telegram is registered as a nonprofit, as is Digital Fortress, Durov’s personal-investment firm that funds the app’s development, he said.

"It’s my responsibility to support the team behind Telegram," Durov wrote in a message sent through the service, his preferred mode of communication. "These guys need more exposure."

VK’s investors disagree. United Capital Partners, which owns a 48 percent stake in the company, argues that Durov should be spending his time working on and promoting VK, not an unrelated upstart. While his interviews tend to mainly focus on Russia's largest social network anyway, Durov said VK doesn’t need the attention. The site has more than 85 million active users, according to research firm ComScore. That's a far cry from Facebook's billion-plus, but VK continues to grow organically, adding 130,000 users a day, according to a spokesman. Global expansion is "not a priority," Durov said.

"We don’t put a dollar toward marketing or advertising," Durov told me proudly. "I think we’re more efficient than Facebook."

Durov can be an agitator. He’s capitalized on the U.S. National Security Agency scandal to promote VK and the encrypted Telegram software. He recently made a public job offer to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who was granted asylum in Russia. (Durov said he hasn’t heard from Snowden yet.) Beyond plugging Telegram, there was another motivation for Durov to start speaking publicly.

"I also wanted to inspire European startups to compete with global American giants and not lose hope," Durov wrote via Telegram. "I’m a big believer in Europe."

This probably won’t be the last you’ll hear from him. Durov is considering appearances at tech conferences in Moscow and Paris in December. He told me on Telegram.

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