Mark Zuckerberg’s Alter Ego Makes Trouble in Russia

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By Leonid Bershidsky

In Russia, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces stiff competition for the role of number one news-making internet wunderkind. His name is Pavel Durov.

Durov, 27, is the founder and CEO of VKontakte (“In Contact”), a Russian social network most easily described as a Facebook clone. Started in 2006, VKontakte has closely mimicked the American trendsetter in terms of design and functionality. With a natively Russian-language interface and a marked disregard for copyright laws -- users can freely share music and movies -- VKontakte has won a large following among users younger and less sophisticated than those of Russian Facebook. As of April, it had 16.2 million Russian users every day, compared with Facebook's 2.3 million, according to research firm TNS.

Durov's star seems mystically linked to Zuckerberg's. The most important business deals of their lives both took place this month. On May 28, just days after Facebook's IPO, Durov won the power to vote the shares of VKontakte's biggest investor, the Group, effectively giving him full voting control of the company. The arrangement is very similar to what Zuckerberg had with Facebook's Russian investor, Digital Sky Technologies, or DST. It also involves the same investors: Group's controlling shareholder, billionaire Alisher Usmanov, owns DST together with partner Yuri Milner.

But it is Durov's political activities, rather than his business dealings, that have put him in the spotlight. He has emerged as an unlikely star of the protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It all started in December, when the Federal Security Service demanded that VKontakte close down several anti-Putin groups on the site, claiming that they threatened state security. Durov responded with a cheeky tweet that included a picture of a hoodie-wearing German shepherd with its tongue sticking out. The groups remained operative. No reprisals followed, and Durov's firmness earned him accolades in the blogosphere.

On May 18, when the magazine Afisha published a set of “civic manifestos” by protest-minded intellectuals, Durov's took a prominent place. It is a profoundly libertarian program, calling for economic deregulation, decentralization and the right of voters to choose which government projects to fund with their taxes. “We should get rid of taxes and limitations on anything to do with information,” Durov wrote. “Russia must become the first large information offshore zone that will draw progressive people from all over the world.”

Durov's background and radical position play into the hands of Putin's propaganda machine, which is doing its best to convince Russians that mass protests in Moscow and other big cities are the work of decadent intellectuals with no connection to the heartland and no regard for traditional national values. To Durov, the son of a prominent St. Petersburg classicist, contempt for these values comes easily, and he makes no secret of it.

On May 9, Durov caused a public uproar with a tweet to mark the 67th anniversary of Russia's victory over the Nazis. “People are celebrating,” he wrote, because “67 years ago Stalin won from Hitler the right to victimize the Soviet population.” That was enough for some prominent Russians, including prizefighter and parliamentary deputy Nikolai Valuyev, to close their VKontakte accounts. “Durov's words are a sacrilege,” Valuyev tweeted.

On May 27, when St. Petersburg celebrated City Day, Durov, whose fortune is estimated at 7.9 billion rubles ($263 million), went a step further in demonstrating his disdain for the plebs. He and a VKontakte vice president threw 5000-ruble ($165) bills from the window of their office in central St. Petersburg. A crowd quickly gathered below. The mob scene was captured by security cameras, and bystanders described people fighting ferociously for the bills. Durov tweeted: “My colleagues decided to contribute to the festive atmosphere with a little happening, but we had to stop quickly: People were turning feral.”

Public condemnation ensued. “He was tossing them out one by one and filming people as they threw themselves at the money, trampling and beating each other,” a local woman named Yelena Abramova was quoted as saying by “He's such a pig. They tossed out about ten bills, and people were coming out of the crowd with bloody noses, climbing traffic lights and generally behaving like apes. And Durov was laughing out loud”.

Blogger kolch-ch78 suggested in a LiveJournal post that people come to VKontakte's office and pile small change at the doorstep to protest the millionaire's crudeness. There were numerous tweets and blog posts calling for a VKontakte boycott. The social network suffered no discernible losses, but Durov's “little happening” did liberal protesters no favors in terms of public image. On the other hand, who would have expected anything different from Zuckerberg's Russian alter ego?

There is one area, however, where Durov is not going to follow in Zuckerberg's footsteps. On May 29, he tweeted that he was postponing VKontakte's IPO indefinitely, because “Facebook's IPO has destroyed many private investors' faith in social networks.”

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- May/30/2012 13:17 GMT