Pavel Durov: The visionary whose alternative to Facebook was snatched away by the Kremlin and counterattacked with an even bigger hit, Telegram

The Russian entrepreneur exiled in Dubai is preparing the IPO of his controversial messaging service after rejecting purchase offers valued at $30 billion

A photo posted by Pavel Durov on his Instagram account.
A photo posted by Pavel Durov on his Instagram account.Pavel Durov (@Durov) / Instagram)
Javier G. Cuesta

Building one of the world’s main communication channels in one of the world’s most repressive countries, Russia, is impressive. Doing it for the second time, after the Kremlin took away his first company, is an anomaly. In 2006, 39-year-old Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov founded the Russian alternative to Facebook, vKontakte (VK). Eight years later, facing harassment by Vladimir Putin’s security services, he was forced to sell his shares for €300 million. Instead of retiring at the age of 29, he created the Telegram messaging service.

This platform, recognized for its system that hides the information circulating through its private chats and newsgroups and which is constantly surrounded by controversy, has over 900 million users. Now exiled in Dubai, Durov has big plans for the company and refuses to sell it despite having received offers with dizzying figures.

A week ago, Durov gave his first interview to a media outlet since 2017. The businessman announced in the British newspaper Financial Times that he is considering taking Telegram public in the future and claimed to have rejected investment fund offers of $30 billion — more than €27 billion — for his company. “We want to remain independent,” the entrepreneur said before launching a $330 million bond issue this week due in 2026, the year he plans to take Telegram public.

If the offer for Telegram is real, its value would multiply the nearly €1.5 billion that VK is worth on the Russian market by almost two dozen times, a company that today is run by the son of the man who is considered President Putin’s “shadow cardinal,” Sergey Kiriyenko. Vladimir Kiriyenko, who is barely a year older than Durov, was vice-president of another technological giant, Rostelecom, from a very young age and under the protection of his father’s ties with the Kremlin. The deputy chief of the presidential cabinet, Sergey leaked the candidates who “were competing” with Putin in this year’s farce of a presidential election.

Durov graduated from St. Petersburg State University in the 2000s with a degree in philology. A brilliant student, he designed several websites for students to exchange notes at the same time Facebook was born, which encouraged him to create VK in 2006 along with his brother Nikolai and his friend and classmate Ilya Perekopsky, today Telegram’s second in command.

The twenty-something Pavel Durov was involved in a few controversies as his social network gained hundreds of millions of users in the post-Soviet space. For instance, in 2012, he caused a fight at the entrance of his headquarters by throwing banknotes of over one hundred euros from his office, and in 2013 he was involved in a hit-and-run that went unpunished.

It was not his eccentricities that cost Russia’s most promising young man his first empire. In 2011, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) demanded that he hand over all the private account information of several political opponents. Durov refused. He did the same two years later, in December 2013, when the former KGB asked him for the data of Ukrainian users who took part in the Maidan protests, which led to the massacre of protesters and the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych two months later.

Closely investigated by Putin’s spy services, Durov left Russia in April 2014 and sold his stake in VK to a business group close to the Kremlin, Mail.ru., for $300 million. “It is impossible to run an internet business in this country,” the entrepreneur cried.

The founder of VK had launched Telegram a year earlier, a platform that has multiplied its user base from 500 to 900 million since 2022 for several reasons. The primary one is that it combines the messaging service with other personal contacts, such as WhatsApp, with a channel system that also serves as a source of information simply and quickly. Its good interface and the company’s zero interference in the content followed by its users have done the rest. Its popularity has soared since the war was unleashed in Ukraine, unlike X (formerly Twitter) following Elon Musk’s purchase, which has prioritized some accounts over others.

Telegram has never had it easy on its home turf. In 2017, the Russian agency for internet control, Roskomnadzor, demanded that Durov give them the passwords to access the chats of its users under the pretext of preventing terrorist attacks. The entrepreneur refused the Kremlin’s demands for the third time, and Moscow passed a law requiring tech companies to store all data in servers on Russian territory. Telegram refused, and Putin’s justice ordered it be blocked in 2018.

That measure never worked. Roskomnadzor’s attempts to prevent its operation failed. However, in the summer of 2020, Durov and the Russian Prosecutor’s Office made a surprise announcement that they had reached an agreement whereby Telegram could resume normal operations in Russia if it handed over information about suspected terrorists to the security forces. Doubts still linger about whether this concession is limited to them: the Kremlin considers everything from the LGBTQ movement to the team of dissident Alexei Navalny to be “extremist organizations,” and several channels of ultra-nationalists critical of the war’s defeats have been persecuted by the police.

In any case, Telegram is aiming higher than ever. At the end of February, Durov announced that it will open its platform in 100 more countries and will even allow monetizing advertising there with cryptocurrencies. Moreover, as he noted in his Financial Times interview, the company already earns “hundreds of millions of dollars” and expects to generate profits this year or next. And it has accomplished all this with barely fifty full-time employees.

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