Several weeks before pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea, President Vladimir V. Putin won another important victory. On Jan. 24, the social network VKontakte, with its 60 million daily users, came under the control of businessmen allied with the Kremlin.
VKontakte is Russia’s Facebook and the largest independent medium in the country. The founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, had long resisted all pressures to step down. But he sold his 12 percent share of the company to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of the pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov, and is leaving.
The brilliant young businessman was unlucky in his timing. Before the Olympics, the state wanted to control the only independent platform where Russians could communicate with one another and organize. If the government had issued a special decree allowing for the tapping of the phones of journalists in Sochi, how could it ignore VKontakte? And not having an independent social network has also proved convenient for a Kremlin on its war footing.
VKontakte took off in 2006. While a student at St. Petersburg State University, Mr. Durov founded the largest student web forum in Russia. In 2006, the project was noticed by his friend Vyacheslav Mirilashvili. Mr. Mirilashvili had graduated from Tufts University, where he caught his first glimpse of Facebook, which had just been launched on the nearby Harvard campus. Together with another friend, Mr. Durov and Mr. Mirilashvili set about implementing Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas for the Russian user. The code was written by Mr. Durov and his brother Nikolai.
Mr. Durov incorporated into the social network his libertarian vision of the Internet as a space of total freedom for the distribution of information. Copyright laws in Russia were blurry, and VKontakte set up one of the largest hosting services in Europe, where users could upload any content they desired.
Until December 2011, Durov enjoyed the favor of the Kremlin’s internal powerbroker, Vladislav Surkov. But after the parliamentary elections that month, the Moscow middle class declared the victory of Mr. Putin’s party to be a fraud, and 150,000 people came out to protest on Bolotnaya Square. Mr. Durov’s patron resigned, and VKontakte began receiving persistent calls from the prosecutor’s office and Russia’s security service, the F.S.B., requesting that it shut down an anti-Putin online group called “United Russia — The Party of Crooks and Thieves” and other groups associated with the opposition. Mr. Durov replied to a summons to the prosecutor’s office with a picture of a husky dressed in a hoodie and sticking out its tongue.
He came to be seen by the Kremlin as an uncontrollable libertarian, prone to eccentric displays like tossing 5000-ruble notes out of the window and showing the finger to representatives of shareholders trying to bring VKontakte under the control of Mail.ru Group.
The investment fund United Capital Partners exploited a conflict between Mr. Durov and his partners to acquire a significant stake in the company. The deal was orchestrated by Igor Sechin, Mr. Putin’s right-hand man. Then the fund requested reams of financial documents, insisting VKontakte was earning too little profit. The state prosecutor launched a criminal investigation of Mr. Durov, claiming he had run over a policeman in his Mercedes. He left Russia.
The investigation was closed a few months later, as suddenly as it was launched, and Mr. Durov returned to St. Petersburg and decided to sell his shares, not so much because of intimidation but because he was inspired to use the profits to develop a new product: a mobile messenger called Telegram.
According to several sources, Mr. Durov received an unequivocal hint from his shareholders that the time had come to close the deal and retire before the Olympics began. Mr. Durov’s shares in VKontakte were valued at $250 million to $300 million. The VKontakte founder decided it would be simpler to leave the social network and take up the challenge of starting Telegram, which has been gaining up to 400,000 new users a day.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s control over traditional media and social media is tightening. In January, Parliament passed a law allowing it to quickly block any undesirable website. And there’s no reason to assume that the stranglehold over independent media will be relaxed now that the Olympics are over.
Media owners have also begun to restrict the activities of editors. And the Kremlin has intensified its propaganda. The state news agency RIA Novosti and the Russia Today channel merged into a single structure. The former top manager has started publishing opinion articles on sensitive topics that diverge from the official government position. Now the agency is led by Dmitry Kiselev, an odious talk show host infamous for his suggestion that “gays’ hearts should be incinerated in ovens.”
The purchase of VKontakte was a complex and delicate operation for the Kremlin. Handing media over to loyal businessmen is not a new method of controlling journalists. The Russian state tried it in 2002, when creditors leaned on the owner of NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, forcing him to sell the company. (NTV is now owned by Gazprom-Media.)
But VKontakte’s pro-Kremlin shareholders were too unfamiliar with information technology, and feared that if they pushed too hard Mr. Durov could have caused a blackout. Understanding this, Mr. Durov sought to maintain the image of a crazy man unafraid of litigation or losses. This is why the operation to buy out his shares was conducted with such meticulous precision.
The brightest maverick in Russia’s business world gave the millennial generation a powerful instrument of organization and self-expression. But in the end Mr. Durov and his company were unable to withstand the pressure of pro-Putin businessmen made rich by the same oil-and-gas wealth that has improved Russians’ quality of life while paralyzing their political will.
But there is generational tension when it comes to media censorship. Most of Mr. Putin’s supporters are Russians over 35; the millennial generation, which grew up on VKontakte, is at best skeptical about Mr. Putin’s flights with wild cranes or his extraction of amphoras from the Black Sea floor. Their real hero was Mr. Durov — a start-up entrepreneur who built a company now worth $3.5 billion by buying a server with the money he saved as a freelancer — and that hero is now leaving Russia.
Mr. Durov tried to comply with government requests in accordance with the law. Now the state has more direct access, whenever it wants, to the personal information, correspondence, locations and movements of tens of millions of Russians — not to mention data on their emotions and intentions.
The Kremlin can now rest easy; any restive opposition activity on the Internet can easily be brought under control.
Nickolay Kononov is editor in chief of Hopes & Fears, a digital magazine about business in Russia.