On the same day Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now on the run from U.S. authorities, was issued temporary asylum by Russia and travel documents so he could leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, he also got a job offer. Pavel Durov, the 28-year-old founder and chief executive of Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social network, proposed that Snowden come work for the company. “We invite Edward to St. Petersburg, and we will be happy if he decides to join Vkontakte’s star-studded programming team,” Durov wrote in a post on his Vkontakte page. “I think Edward might be interested in working on protecting the personal data of millions of our users.”
These are challenging times for Durov and his company. In a feature story for this week’s print edition of Bloomberg Businessweek, I wrote about the pressure facing both Durov personally and Vkontakte, which he founded in 2006. Over the past months, Durov has faced murky legal charges and the sale of 48 percent of Vkontakte by longtime friends and investors to a fund with supposed ties to the ruling clique around Vladimir Putin.
After paying little attention to the Internet and social networks, the Kremlin is now aware of the Internet’s potential as a political instrument and, with a series of new laws passed by the Duma, appears to be making efforts to monitor and control what is being said and shared online. So far, Vkontakte has not come under any overt pressure. But the change in ownership, as Nikolai Kononov, who wrote a well-received biography of Durov, told me for this week’s story, is best seen as “insurance in the case of any future political cataclysms.” At very least, the time when Durov would be left alone in his often strange and difficult brilliance may be coming to an end.
Durov’s apparent affinity for Snowden comes as little surprise. Although Durov has tried to remain aloof from the particulars of Russian politics, he is an avowed tech-libertarian who has advocated for little or no government control over information and human capital. His manifesto, published in the Russian magazine Afisha last year, reads like a treatise on the virtues of transparency and deregulation; it would not be out of place in the more radical corners of Silicon Valley. What’s more, Durov is not one to pick sides in political battles—just as he once tried to deflect praise for refusing an official request to close the pages of protest groups on Vkontakte, the fact that he may be facing his own problems with the state does not keep him from championing Snowden, the Kremlin’s hero du jour.
Durov sees himself as having no allegiance other than to himself and his company. As Kononov put it: “He’s an individualist, an egoist—he works only for himself, plays only his game.” Durov’s worldview allows him to chafe at the Russian state’s attempts to control the Internet; laud the culture of innovation in America’s IT industry; and still write, as he did yesterday, “At moments like this, one feels pride in our country and regret about the policies of the United States, a country that is betraying the principles upon which it was once built.”