The Kremlin Tried to Use VKontakte—Russia’s Facebook—to Spy on Ukrainians

Anti-government protesters online at a barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb. 5 Photograph by Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine expanded beyond geography and into social networks last year, when Moscow officials tried to collect personal data on Ukrainians who joined social media groups protesting the country’s pro-Russian former president.

Pavel Durov, founder and chief executive officer of Russia’s largest social media website, VKontakte, claims he refused a demand by the Federal Security Service—the KGB’s successor agency—to turn over details on members of 39 protest groups with VKontakte pages. Durov posted a copy of the demand on his website, a document apparently sent by the agency’s St. Petersburg office on Dec. 13. That was three weeks after Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, snubbed a European trade agreement in favor of closer ties with the Russian government, sparking protests that led to his ouster in February.

“Our answer has been and remains flat refusal,” Durov wrote, adding that Russian authorities have no legal right to gather private data on Ukrainians. Disclosure “would have breached the law and betrayed millions of Ukrainians who trusted us.”

VKontakte is based in St. Petersburg but has millions of subscribers in Ukraine and other former Soviet states. It has resisted earlier Kremlin demands to block pages set up by Russian protest groups. But this appears to be the first time Russian authorities have tried to extend their reach to subscribers outside the country’s borders. The demand for data on Ukrainian protest groups didn’t explain why the security agency wanted the information or how it would be used.

The timing of the demand in mid-December makes clear that Moscow was watching the Ukraine protests closely, long before it became clear that the Yanukovych regime would fall. Russia has justified its annexation of Crimea—and, more recently, has evoked the possibility of intervention in eastern Ukraine—by saying the new government wasn’t protecting ethnic Russians in those regions.

Durov, 29, has been managing VKontakte from abroad after fleeing Russia in April 2013 when he was accused of driving a car over a police officer’s foot. VKontakte has said Durov doesn’t drive. He hasn’t disclosed his current whereabouts but has been seen in the U.S. and Europe in recent months.

In his most recent post, Durov described the mounting pressure he’s faced from the Kremlin. An investment company with ties to the government bought up a 48 percent stake in VKontakte last year, something Durov and another key shareholder didn’t learn until after the fact. Durov said he sold his entire 12 percent stake last December after concluding that keeping it would “prevent me from making the right decisions.” Now, he said, “I have something more important—a clean conscience and ideals that I am willing to defend.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.