The United States has sanctioned the head of Russia’s largest social network
On Thursday, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration imposed sweeping sanctions on Russian banks, energy and infrastructure companies and a number of Russian elites.
The US Treasury Department provided the full list in a press release, which divided the sanctioned entities into two categories: “large Russian financial institutions” and “elite and close Putin families”.
Among those sanctioned is Vladimir Kiriyenko, CEO of VK Group, the parent company of Russia’s largest social network VKontakte. While not sanctioned specifically for his work with the VK Group, the result still bars one of the country’s most powerful tech executives from doing business with a US entity.
Although it does not operate on the global scale of Facebook, VK – originally known as VKontakte – is the dominant social media platform in Russia. It claims to have around 70 million monthly active users, making it about a quarter the size of Twitter; and the vast majority of these accounts post in Russian within Russian geographic borders.
Kiriyenko was not a founder of Vkontakte: in fact, his association with the company only dates back to 2021. But his leadership of the company represents the latest twist in a saga that has seen the social network drift away from a platform committed to privacy and free speech, to one far more likely to toe Putin’s party line.
Vkontakte was established in 2006 by Pavel Durov, who was then only 22 years old. His rapid success – driven by a thirst for a local alternative to Facebook – earned Durov the nickname “Russian Mark Zuckerberg”. But in 2014, Durov was forced out of his job as CEO in a conspiracy case that included disputed allegations of a hit-and-run involving a police officer, followed by a hostile takeover attempt in which an investment fund owned Ilya Sherbovich, a Russian businessman and Putin ally, secretly acquired 48% of the company.
Durov blamed his ouster on the Russian government. “I’m afraid there’s no turning back [to VK]“, he told TechCrunch at the time, “not after publicly refusing to cooperate with authorities. They can’t stand me.
The entrepreneur then fled Russia and began to focus on a new project: the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which he had launched in 2013. From the start, Telegram took a more robust attitude towards privacy and freedom of speech, prompted by Durov’s experience with censorship in Russia.
Durov initially rejected requests from French authorities, then pressure from Russia’s FSB security service, to put a “backdoor” in the encryption that would allow governments to eavesdrop on encrypted messages. Russian telecommunications companies have been ordered to block Telegram in the country, but have largely failed. The Russian government finally gave up in 2020, by which time it was already used as an official communication channel for many government agencies. In neighboring Ukraine, it has seen similar adoption as a personal and official communication tool.
Meanwhile, the management of VKontakte was taken over by Boris Dobrodeyev, the company’s former deputy general director. Dobrodeyev retained the CEO position until 2021, when a restructuring of parent company Mail.ru – the Russian digital service provider which owned the remaining 52% of Vkontakte shares – brought the entire company under the VK brand. Vladimir Kiriyenko was appointed as the new CEO shortly thereafter in December 2021, following Dobrodeyev’s resignation.
Kiriyenko, 38, previously held a senior executive position at Rostelecom, Russia’s national telecommunications operator. Previously, he held positions as chairman of the board of directors of a telecommunications company, a bank and an investment company – due to his status as the son of Sergei Kirienko, the former prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin, and now the first deputy chief of staff of the Putin administration. (Sergei Kiriyenko also appears as an individual named on the elite sanctions list.)
Under the leadership of a regime insider like Vladimir Kiriyenko, it’s hard to imagine VK would host content critical of the Putin government, or take any of the pro-privacy stances that Durov’s Telegram was willing to adopt.