In the journalistic shorthand of his native Russia, Pavel Durov is unfailingly described as his country’s Mark Zuckerberg. Though flattering, the comparison with the Facebook founder does not seem quite right to me: it overstates Durov’s commercial success while, if anything, understating his personal accomplishments.
Like Zuckerberg, the boyish tech entrepreneur from St Petersburg created his country’s most popular social network, VKontakte, which revolutionised the Russian internet. But in 2011 Durov fell foul of the Kremlin by refusing to close down the pages of opposition activists as protests swelled against the returning president, Vladimir Putin. He became a target of increasing police harassment and was, in effect, forced to sell out of VKontakte to pro-Kremlin investors. Fired as the company’s chief executive in 2014, he quit Russia with $300m in his pocket and founded a new messaging app, Telegram. He now wanders the world preaching the virtues of secure communications and libertarianism.
Comparisons aside, Durov has certainly packed a lot into his 30 years and retains grandiose plans for the future. So I am a little surprised when a slim, unassuming man slips into a sleek Italian restaurant in Mayfair and introduces himself in quiet, near-flawless English. His appearance, all-black clothing and rebellious instincts have led to innumerable comparisons with the mysterious action hero Neo in the Matrix films. But Durov’s pale complexion, jet black hair, and doe eyes remind me more of a dreamy prince in a Disney cartoon.
He tells me that he chose Quattro Passi for lunch because he is staying nearby and likes the cooking. “Italian food is simple and healthy, and it’s easier for a vegetarian to choose something from the menu,” he says. It perhaps also reminds him of his childhood: Durov spent several years in Italy, in Turin, because his father Valery (who holds a PhD in philology and is an expert on ancient Rome) was employed there. “I was born in the Soviet Union. Then when I was three or four we moved to Italy and by the time we got back there was no more Soviet Union,” he says.
Snowden is my personal hero
The restaurant is a hedge fund manager’s heaven of silver decorations, mirrors and taupe furnishings. We study the menu. Durov orders burrata and plain spaghetti with cheese for the main course. “White?” the waitress enquires. “White and, please, no salt or a minimal amount of salt. Thank you,” he replies. After asking whether they have any rye bread (they have none), he orders some homemade brown bread instead. This makes my order of minestrone and monkfish with cherries seem racy.
I ask him about his lifestyle as an international nomad. Durov, who says he is addicted to big cities but does not like the concept of countries, explains how he and a core team of four engineers from Telegram take their work with them round the world. “We choose a place and stay there for two or three months, then we relocate to the next place. Adiós.”
He travels on a passport from St Kitts and, over the past year, he and his team have worked out of San Francisco, New York, London, Paris and Berlin, and he is off again soon to Finland. The peripatetic lifestyle also suits his business, given that one of its great selling points is security. “Since the day we started Telegram 18 months ago we haven’t disclosed a single byte of user data to third parties, including government officials.”
The initial impulse for both of his companies has stemmed, Durov says, from satisfying a personal need: the wish to communicate with his university friends in the case of VKontakte, and the necessity of creating a secure messaging system with Telegram. He had the idea for the latter after he came under intense scrutiny from the Russian authorities in 2011. Armed police attempted to storm his apartment in St Petersburg and he realised that his communications were being tapped. He wanted a means of communicating securely with his 34-year-old brother Nikolai, a mathematician and engineer who helped found VKontakte and later developed the encryption code for the Telegram app.
“Our right for private communication and privacy is more important than the marginal threats that some politicians would like to make us afraid of. If you get rid of emotion for a minute and think about the threat of terrorism statistically, it’s not even there. The probability that you will slip on a wet floor in your bathroom and die is a thousand times higher than the probability of you dying as a result of terrorism.”
34 Dover Street, London
Spaghetti with formaggio £18
Fresh mint tea x 2 £10
Total (with service) £88.88
But those statistics can be used to support different conclusions, I counter. Maybe they show that the security services are gleaning vital information from data intercepts and are preventing many more terrorist attacks. Doesn’t end-to-end encryption, such as he uses, only tilt the field in the terrorist’s favour?
He argues it is simplistic to assume the relatively rare occurrence of terrorist incidents in the west is necessarily a sign of government’s effectiveness. Given the ease of committing terrorist acts, maybe it reflects the lack of terrorist intent. “I think we in western civilisation tend to overestimate our own abilities to solve the problems and challenges that we face,” he says.
For example, he continues, the pharmaceuticals industry persuades us we need to take pills to keep healthy. “But I don’t use anything pharmaceutical companies have to offer and I’m still healthy. Maybe we shouldn’t be too dependent on the advertisements companies want us to believe. Maybe we shouldn’t be too dependent on politicians trying to make us believe that we are safe only because of their actions.”
Moreover, if the security services really want to access a user’s data, he says, they can try going to Google and Apple. “Since there is always the probability that these companies can allow the security agencies direct access to your device, nobody can be 100 per cent sure, but one thing Telegram does is make mass surveillance impossible.”
. . .
I ask him if he approves of Edward Snowden blowing the lid off US and UK surveillance programmes. “Obviously, yes. He is my personal hero,” he replies. “We are the same age and in a way I regard his battle with the National Security Agency as a generational war. It’s the new versus the old.” Durov has never met Snowden other than by video conference but publicly offered him a job at Telegram — an invitation he declined. “Any government that likes to call themselves democratic should welcome Snowden and allow him to live in their country.”
While talking, Durov has carefully chopped his burrata into little pieces and eaten them but left the accompanying red peppers and rocket on the side.
Some 5bn messages are now sent via Telegram daily. But security is not the only reason for Telegram’s appeal, he says, explaining that it is the only mass-market messaging app that has opened its source code, thus encouraging other developers to use it as a platform. This enables developers to run educational programmes to learn Chinese, for example, or run chat groups or dating sites. “I see it as a tool for providing social good,” he says.
Pulling out his smartphone, which has a cracked screen, he demonstrates how a third-party developer over a weekend came up with a prototype dating app on Telegram’s platform. Almost instantly, he connects with a Julia, 32, in St Petersburg. “If I say, yes, I like her, and on the other side she would say yes, the bot will connect us,” he says.
That may be so yet, for the moment, Telegram is not making any money: the equipment, staff and traffic costs are burning about $1m of Durov’s cash a month. But he has long had a casual view of money — in 2012 he and his colleagues threw paper darts made of Rbs5,000 ($90) banknotes out of his office window in St Petersburg, causing fights to break out on the street below.
Although outside investors and companies want to invest in or buy Telegram, Durov says he is not yet prepared to open up the company. He says some US tech titans are so intent on making money that they exploit their employees, customers and competitors before giving their wealth away to charity. Durov hopes to develop his business and act for the good of society simultaneously.
Our main courses arrive and we move to what Durov call the “previous project”: VKontakte. Having taught himself coding to build his own computer games, he developed the social network while he was a liberal arts student at St Petersburg State University. Initially it was a platform on which students could share material from lectures they had skipped. It took on a life of its own as several thousand students used it to run discussion groups and post photos, blogs and private messages.
On graduation in 2006 Durov decided to develop it as a business and a means of keeping in touch with his peers. “So, I came up with the name, VKontakte [“in touch”] and I created everything from scratch — all the code, the design, the marketing strategy,” he says. “Mark [Zuckerberg] was lucky because he was studying at Harvard and from the first few weeks he could attract his roommate to help him do some of the coding. I had to do everything myself.”
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Corruption is usually bad, but when the laws are really stupid and outdated . . . it can be a good thing
Durov concedes he drew inspiration from Facebook, which was fast expanding in US universities at the time, and carefully studied what worked — and what didn’t. He had no difficulty finding talented engineers to develop the network and VKontakte flourished. It was, he says, a “libertarian’s paradise” in the unregulated internet market that then existed in Russia. “You could do anything,” he says. “Of course, there were stupid laws. You could get around them with the help of corruption, which is usually bad, but when the laws are really stupid and outdated and really limit innovation, it can be a good thing.”
The business and political climate changed rapidly in late 2011, however, when Russia’s then prime minister Vladimir Putin made it clear he was going to return to the presidency and mass protests erupted over disputed parliamentary elections. According to Durov, the government panicked and deluged VKontakte with demands to block opposition activity. Durov did not take the requests seriously, fearing he would simply lose traffic to Facebook and Twitter. “So, I made fun of it. I posted a tweet with a dog in a hoodie with its tongue hanging out,” he says. “I also published the scans of these official requests.” In 2012 he incensed Russia’s nationalists by tweeting on the anniversary of the end of the second world war that “Stalin defended from Hitler his right to suppress Soviet people”. “I think the tweet was accurate. Maybe the timing was wrong,” he now concludes. “Stalin killed more people than Hitler did. I hate these two guys equally.”
Durov had misread the mood very badly. There was the abortive raid on his St Petersburg apartment; he was charged with injuring a policeman in a traffic accident; and he and his partners were eventually bought out by pro-Kremlin investors. “I sold because I understood what was coming. I understood that any property I have in Russia is not an asset. It’s a liability. It could be used as leverage to make me do things I don’t want to do.”
Still, as a Russian whose great grandparents had been persecuted by Stalin and whose grandfather had been sent to the gulag in spite of being decorated three times during the second world war, Durov remains philosophical. He knows that far worse could have happened to him. He also sold just before the value of tech stocks nosedived. “I was pretty lucky to sell,” he says.
A fairly unappetising-looking plate of spaghetti is placed in front of Durov while I tuck into my carefully confected dish of monkfish. He says he remains hopeful the reactionary forces that are running Russia will weaken and a more open-minded generation of politicians will come to the fore. “But I regard myself as a tech entrepreneur, not as a politician or philosopher. I’d be happy to see libertarian values spread but it’s not something that I see as my mission.”
His views on other regimes around the world are not much more favourable. The EU is a “bureaucratic monster” that stifles enterprise with red tape and is too cumbersome to adapt to the changes of the 21st century. He admires the founding principles of the US but believes they have been corrupted by the country’s global dominance. “This is a country that has a monopoly in three fields: in technology with Silicon Valley, in entertainment with Hollywood and in finance with Wall Street. They have so much power. But power corrupts.”
He is wary of how some of the tech industry is evolving. “I think Facebook has become excessively affiliated with the government,” he says. “People have got tired of all of their lives being recorded and stored somewhere.”
Durov feels the conflict between Russia and Ukraine deeply but says he could never take sides. “From my mother’s side I am from Ukraine and from my father’s side I am from Russia. Personally I think they are probably the closest relatives in the family of nations.”
He believes a battle of ideas is raging in Russia that will determine the country’s future. As someone who during his military service studied how to wage propaganda wars, he admires the Kremlin’s approach, from a purely professional standpoint. “You can imagine a situation when the state propaganda is so good this new generation will actually believe centralisation is better than decentralisation, planning is better than improvisation, regulation is better than freedom. I can imagine that happening, but I hope it wouldn’t be the case.”
After our main courses are cleared away we both order fresh mint tea. I try to steer the conversation to more personal matters but he bats back a question about whether he has a partner. “I would rather not comment on my private life,” he says.
Throughout the lunch, Durov has been toying with his cloakroom check tag. On leaving he trades it in for a black baseball cap. Smoothing it over his head, he waves a shy goodbye and disappears into a sunny afternoon, leaving me wondering whether I have just met a guest from Russia’s future or an exotic relic of its all-too-brief libertarian past.
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor and a former Moscow bureau chief
Illustration by James Ferguson