VKontakte was created to empower free speech, but it has instead enabled government censorship and arrests.
In December 2021, two months before the invasion of Ukraine, the new CEO of Russia’s second-most-popular social media network sat next to an immaculate Christmas tree and introduced himself to staff in a video message. For the occasion, Vladimir Kiriyenko—a man usually only pictured in suits—donned dark jeans with New Balance trainers. Throughout the one-hour video, he mostly avoided eye contact with the camera, instead directing his comments about the company’s future to Ochir Mandzhikov, VK’s vice president of communications. But not everyone at VKontakte (VK), Russia’s equivalent to Facebook, was convinced by their new leader’s performance.
After watching the video, which was shared internally, one VK employee told WIRED that it felt like his new boss was from another world. “Usually when an IT founder speaks, they talk like a friend, about facts, about actions,” they said, requesting anonymity because they still work at the company. “Vladimir speaks like a politician because he talks without actually sharing any information.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, VK has been on the front line of the Kremlin’s information war. Under Kiriyenko’s leadership, the platform banned its users from spreading what the Kremlin considers false information about the war, while its new CEO has featured on Europe’s sanctions list. Vladimir Sergeevich Kiriyenko “supports Vladimir Putin’s aim for greater control over the internet,” the sanctions list reads.
The controversy surrounding Kiriyenko’s rise to the top role at VK stems from his family’s connection to President Vladimir Putin. Kiriyenko’s father, Sergey, is one of Putin’s most powerful aides and is considered the country’s domestic policy czar. Kiriyenko senior has also been an active lobbyist for the creation of a sovereign Russian internet, a proposal that would sever Russia’s internet infrastructure from the rest of the world and give the Kremlin much greater control.
The appointment of Kiriyenko junior, who previously held a leadership role at state-owned telecom company Rostelecom, has been interpreted by analysts as the latest chapter in VK’s gradual loss of independence from Russia’s government. “VK has long since become a company completely controlled by the Kremlin,” says Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the legal department at Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda. “With Kiriyenko, all the requirements of the presidential administration and Roskomnadzor are now fulfilled with lightning speed.” VK declined a request to comment for this story.
WIRED spoke to eight current and former VK employees, including its former CEO, who described how the company became increasingly compliant with the authorities as it pursued its ambitions for growth, transforming from an independent tech startup to a corporation controlled by Alisher Usmanov, a man both the UK and EU describe as a pro-Kremlin oligarch. In 2021, Russia’s state-owned energy company Gazprom bought out Usmanov and paved the way for Kiriyenko’s appointment. If the Kremlin has a vested interest in how a company is run, it will find ways to exert its influence, says Alyssa Demus, an expert in Eurasian politics and information warfare at US think tank RAND. “In the case of VK, it wasn’t necessarily an overnight hostile takeover so much as a slow burn, pushing out the former creator and CEO and co-opting the business from the inside out.”
VK has become a major beneficiary of Russia’s recent ban on its competitors. In March, the platform reached a record 50 million daily users, becoming the country’s most popular social media site after Facebook and Instagram were blocked. VK’s newsfeed views jumped 24 percent and video views surged 15 percent in the first month of the war, according to Moscow-based data company Brand Analytics. VK has also been actively chasing its competitors’ clients, publishing a step-by-step guide for businesses about how to migrate away from international platforms.
The company VK has become is drastically different from the one that was founded back in 2006 by Pavel Durov, who later set up messaging app Telegram. In the early days, the content on VK was a microcosm of the best and worst of Russia’s internet, something the government would later leverage against it. Pirated music and pornography flowed freely on the platform, and the authorities complained about child sex abuse materials on the site. There was just one guy in charge of content moderation at the time, according to developer Oleg Illarionov, who joined VK in 2010.
“We had gotten used to the idea that the internet is open, it’s free, we can do whatever we want, and we only had to comply with our own moderation rules,” says Andrew Rogozov, who started at the company in 2007 and later became CEO. “In those days, there was no regulation,” he adds. “And the [government takedown] requests were very random and spontaneous.”
Russia’s internet remained unregulated until 2012, the year after allegations of electoral fraud drove thousands of people to protest around the country, in what was called the “snow-revolution.” “The leading faction in the Kremlin realized that social media was a major information channel, and then they began to try to clamp down on it,” says Vladimir Barash, chief scientist at social network analysis company Graphika.
Just months after his 2012 reelection, Putin approved a law that created a blacklist of websites that the government deemed harmful to children. From then on, the relationship between VK and the authorities deteriorated. Despite a leak that appeared to show Durov discussing sharing users’ private data with Russia’s security services, people who worked alongside Durov at the time said he was committed to free speech. “From the start, he decided not to comply with anything,” says Illarionov. “I would say he was the strongest admirer of free speech out of everybody I know.”
Tension between the company and the government boiled over in 2014, after VK refused to remove posts and groups linked to the Euromaidan protest movement in Ukraine, company insiders told WIRED. That year, the authorities searched VK’s offices and police accused Durov of running over a policeman’s foot with a white Mercedes, forcing the founder into hiding. Durov, who did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment, resigned in April, saying later he was pressured to sell his 12 percent stake in the business. After VK’s two other cofounders also sold their shares, the platform ended up under full control of the Mail.ru group, an internet business majority-owned by Usmanov. The British government, which sanctioned Usmanov in March, describes him as a leading oligarch and Putin associate.
But Durov did not walk away empty-handed; it’s estimated he received around $300 million as part of the deal. “This was the same strategy that was used when there was a consolidation of the oil industry,” says Ruben Enikolopov, economics professor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “So they were not forcing people to sell for free but pressuring people to sell their assets.”
Rogozov, who was head of development under Durov, took over the day-to-day running of the platform in his new role as chief operating officer, according to multiple people that spoke to WIRED. Under his leadership, change happened quickly. Developers complained that revenue was prioritized over user experience, and new hires diluted the company culture. “We needed to generate revenue in order to grow the company,” says Rogozov. “Many people inside the company struggled with that transition because before we only focused on users. VK was never a cash cow, but the market was expecting revenue.”
The attitude to government requests changed too. When Durov was still in charge in December 2012, a member of a pro-Alexei Navalny group on the platform published messages exchanged with him. “Recently the FSB asked us to close opposition groups, like yours,” Durov claimed in the message.“By principle we don’t do that. We don’t know yet how it will end for us.” The same day, Durov tweeted what he called his “official response” to FSB requests: a picture of a dog wearing a hoodie with its tongue out. Durov did not respond to requests to comment.
When Rogozov took over, he says he cooperated with the authorities while trying to convey to regulators that if internet regulation was too strict, VK would not be able to compete with the US platforms already gaining traction in Russia. “The tactic was, we realized that when you are working in the Russian market and when you do business here, you need to comply with the rules,” he says. Illarionov remembers how Rogozov would try to reassure the team, explaining why content had to be banned. “Andrew would usually come and explain why it happened,” he says. “He’d say, ‘Guys, we have a court decision and we are located in Russia, so we have to comply with the court decision.’”
But that philosophy became more controversial as new laws became more extreme, such as the 2016 Yarovaya law that forced internet companies including VK to store messages, posts, images, video, and metadata for up to six months. Since Rogozov made the decision that VK would be a compliant company, the number of laws it has to abide by has snowballed. “Now VK automatically unloads all information from the Roskomnadzor blacklist, blocking all of the prohibited content, strictly moderates content, promotes pro-governmental content, complies with the requirements of the “Yarovaya law” by collecting all metadata and storing users’ correspondence, and finally discloses all data to law enforcement that initiate criminal proceedings against users,” lists Darbinyan. A VK insider with knowledge of the company’s relationship with the authorities confirmed to WIRED that the company has shared users’ private messages with the authorities when asked to provide evidence for court cases.
Outsiders quickly noticed the new, closer relationship with the government. “To date, no other social network in Russia cooperates so thoroughly and unquestioningly,” said a 2017 report by digital rights group Article 19. Under Rogozov’s leadership, reports also intensified that VK users were being arrested for the posts or memes they shared on the platform. Until 2021, the majority of VK users punished under Russian anti-extremism laws were targeted for sharing xenophobic posts, says Maria Kravchenko, chief of the misuse of anti-extremism board at Russian NGO SOVA. But activists were affected too. In 2015, convicted 26-year-old Darya Polyudova was sentenced to two years in prison for three VK posts. One read: “No war in Ukraine but a revolution in Russia!”
In response to the arrests, VK introduced privacy changes in 2018, hiding details about which accounts had shared posts and enabling users to make their profiles private. One employee who worked at VK at the time said these changes were introduced partly to protect the audience but partly to protect VK’s reputation. At the same time VK became more compliant with the government, US services like Instagram and WhatsApp were becoming more popular in Russia. Developers working at VK at the time described feeling like they were constantly catching up. “Every time Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp or anyone else invented some new feature, we tried to replicate it,” says Alexey Storozhev, who was an iOS developer between 2014 and 2018.
But the reputational damage caused by the arrests was nothing compared to what was about to happen in Ukraine. In May 2017, the Ukrainian government banned VK as well as other online services like online network Odnoklassniki for “waging information aggression and propaganda against Ukraine,” Overnight, VK lost around 14 million users, Rogozov says. “I think it affected us way more than all the regulations that later took place in Russia.”
By the end of 2021, VK had merged with Mail.ru, which was rebranded as the VK Group, and the company was creaking under the pressure to grow fast enough to compete with US alternatives. VK had been overtaken by WhatsApp in the user number charts toward the end of 2021, according to Statista. Instagram was not far behind. In the months before the invasion of Ukraine, the company was again “struggling,” according to Rogozov, and it was looking for investors. One former employee who was aware of the company’s financial position said what happened next was inevitable. “You have to choose investors to work with, and not so many of them can really invest those kinds of resources,” they said. “The bigger you are, the more connected you are with the government. This is how business works in Russia.”
“In hindsight, [Kiriyenko’s appointment] was probably preparation for war,” says Enikolopov. If that’s the case, it would mark the second time changes in the company’s management structure coincided with events in Ukraine. In 2014, the same year pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea, pro-Kremlin oligarch Usmanov took control of VK. Two months after Kiriyenko took over, Russian tanks rolled across the border into Ukraine. Both instances also took place as the company was struggling financially. The week after Durov was pushed out in 2014, Sony, Universal, and Warner all filed separate lawsuits against VK over pirated music. Before Gazprom took control of the platform in 2021, insiders told WIRED the company was again struggling to compete with US competitors and was looking for investors.
One former employee compared VK’s fate to the (scientifically dubious) fable of the boiling frog: If a frog is dropped into boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put it in water that is slowly boiled, the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late. “I think the Russian people and everybody connected to the internet are like this frog in normal water,” he says. “It started with one law for saving our children from offensive information, and now people in Russia are in a situation where they can write the word “war” on VK and spend 15 years in jail.”
All Rights Reserved for Morgan Meaker