Pavel Durov: The "Web-Totem," an Architect of Telegram and VK

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Pavel Durov, the visionary behind VK and Telegram, is celebrated for his staunch defense of freedom, sometimes likened to the real-life Neo from The Matrix. Known for what some fans claim is the best-looking torso on the internet, Durov began his tech journey as a university student in 2006 and has since amassed a fortune of $15.5 billion.
Pavel Durov was born on October 10, 1984, into the family of Valery Durov and Albina Durova, making him the second child of his parents. His father was the head of the philology faculty at St. Petersburg State University, and his mother was a professor at the same institution. His older brother Nikolai, another prodigy, would play a significant role in Pavel’s career.

At the age of four, Pavel’s family emigrated to Italy. There, the future creator of Telegram began his schooling. Upon returning to Russia, he enrolled in a gymnasium affiliated with SPbU.

Pavel’s political stance was shaped early in life. During his schooling in Italy, he was nicknamed "Rosso" — meaning red (communist), to which Pavel would curtly reply, "Che cazzo volete?" (What do you want from me?) and would often spit in disdain.

Durov's dislike for conventional schooling was apparent. In school photos, he either appeared absent or visibly displeased.
Pavel Durov in school photographs. Source:

Pavel Durov in school photographs. Source:

Pavel showed an early aptitude for computer programming. He once altered the startup screens on all his school's computers to display an image of his computer science teacher with the ominous caption "Must Die."

During his graduation, while his peers discussed future careers, Pavel declared his ambition to become a "Web-totem."


Durov is often referred to as the "Russian Zuckerberg." Like Mark Zuckerberg, who developed a communication platform for Harvard students, Durov created similar solutions for his university:

  • —  a repository of academic resources;
  • — an online communication forum for students and faculty.

Inspired by Facebook's success in the USA and the popularity of among SPbU students, Durov decided to create his own social network. He collaborated with his brother Nikolai and friends Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili to launch VKontakte on October 1, 2006.

Nikolai initially advised his younger brother by phone from Germany. As VKontakte began to gain traction, Nikolai returned to St. Petersburg to assume the role of Chief Technical Officer of the company.

By the end of 2008, VK had amassed over 20 million registered users. Around the same time, the project received a significant investment from the Digital Sky Technologies (DST) fund, which acquired a 25% stake for $12.5 million.
VK user growth. Source:

VK user growth. Source:

VKontakte soon became a hub for thousands of pirated movies and music tracks, effectively combining the functionalities of YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify in one platform. 

Although it was anticipated that the platform's copyright infringements would attract government scrutiny, VKontakte would later come under government interest for entirely different reasons.

Durov vs. the FSB

Initially, the activities of VKontakte seemed to be of little concern to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). However, the situation changed in December 2011, when Russia was engulfed by protests. Tens of thousands of Russians, many of whom were VKontakte users, protested against the alleged rigging of parliamentary elections.

The government requested that VKontakte shut down seven groups that were using the platform to coordinate protests. Pavel Durov, in his characteristically defiant manner, responded with a resolute "No," and famously posted on X (formerly Twitter) a picture of a dog, symbolizing his refusal.
The pressure from the FSB did not wane. On one occasion, security forces even attempted to break into Durov’s home, but this confrontation did not alter Pavel's stance. He documented this incident in a post, further solidifying his respect among VKontakte users. His actions, along with his physical resemblance to Keanu Reeves, helped cement his reputation as the "Neo of The Matrix."
Neo from The Matrix and Pavel Durov. Source:

Neo from The Matrix and Pavel Durov. Source:

VKontakte also had a significant user base in Ukraine, and when protests against the pro-Russian government erupted in Kyiv in 2014, the Kremlin again sought Durov's cooperation. As before, Pavel refused.

The standoff with the FSB lasted until 2014 when Pavel was compelled to sell his VKontakte shares for 300 million euros and subsequently left Russia in April. As of April 2024, VKontakte is owned by the Kremlin-affiliated Group.


In 2013, Pavel established Digital Fortress, based in Buffalo, New York. This venture focused on developing his new product—Telegram, a platform for exchanging encrypted messages.

The concept for Telegram was conceived during Durov’s conflict with the FSB. The absence of a secure method of communication with his brother spurred Nikolai to develop the MTProto encryption protocol, which Telegram continues to use.

Much like VKontakte faced accusations of mimicking Facebook, Telegram is often compared to WhatsApp. Additionally, the logo of Durov’s messenger bears a resemblance to that of the Sparrow email client.
Sparrow Logo (left) and Telegram Logo (right). Source:

Sparrow Logo (left) and Telegram Logo (right). Source:

While the restrictions on VKontakte were primarily a concern for the Russian government, Telegram's operations have attracted the attention of authorities worldwide:

  • United States: Democratic Party representatives demanded access to personal data of participants in the Capitol riot. Telegram ignored this request.
  • China: In July 2015, China blocked access to Telegram, which had been used to criticize the government. 
  • Thailand: On October 19, 2020, Thai authorities blocked Telegram as part of their efforts to quell protests. 

Despite facing blockages and criticism, Telegram continues to enjoy significant popularity. As of April 2024, the application boasts more than 800 million active users, a milestone reached without any formal advertising campaign.

Telegram Open Network

In 2019, Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai raised $1.7 billion through an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to launch their own blockchain, the Telegram Open Network (TON). They raised these funds by selling GRAM tokens.

Before the ICO could conclude, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) intervened, initiating an investigation against Telegram for issuing unregistered securities. The legal battle ended with the SEC emerging victorious, forcing the Durov brothers to return $1.2 billion of the raised funds and pay a fine of $18.5 million.

Despite these challenges, TON persisted, albeit under new management and rebranded as "The Open Network."

To circumvent future legal challenges from the SEC, the project's developers altered their approach to asset distribution. Rather than selling tokens through an ICO, they introduced a mining model. Once all tokens were mined, the blockchain transitioned to a Proof-of-Stake consensus algorithm.

As of April 2024, Telegram is officially unaffiliated with TON, though the projects maintain active interactions. TON serves as the base currency within the messenger, for instance, allowing users to purchase Telegram usernames using it.

Pavel Durov’s Personal Brand

From his VKontakte days, Pavel Durov has been perceived as an entrepreneur who operates independently of external influences. He avoids cooperation with authorities, rarely makes public appearances, and eschews ownership of property or luxury items.

However, Durov's life includes several high-profile incidents:

  1. In 2012, Durov threw paper airplanes made from 5,000-ruble notes out of his office window.
  2. In 2013, he was accused of driving a car that hit a police officer, a charge he denied.
  3. In 2016, Durov hosted a party in Barcelona, featuring performances by the illusionist David Blaine, among others.

Durov has a distinctive approach to social media management. His accounts on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram have 1.3 million followers, yet he follows no one.

He seldom posts on X; his last tweet dates back to November 30, 2022. He consistently wears black, rarely smiles in photos, and his Instagram is populated with images of architecture, nature, or shots showcasing his bare torso.

The topless photos are part of his opposition to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. On August 14, 2017, Pavel launched the #PutinShirtlessChallenge by posting a topless photo, in response to Putin's famously shirtless fishing image.
Pavel Durov’s torso vs. Vladimir Putin’s torso. Source:

Pavel Durov’s torso vs. Vladimir Putin’s torso. Source:

Durov is known for his reclusiveness from the media, making his April 2024 interview with Tucker Carlson a notable event. In this rare discussion, he spoke about his childhood, the founding of VKontakte and Telegram. The choice of Carlson as an interviewer was seen by some as a tactical move, coming shortly after Putin's interview with the same journalist.

Was it competition or trolling? Many interpret it as the latter, especially given Durov’s remark during the interview, "This will be a long story," a subtle reference to Putin’s famously long-winded speeches that have become meme fodder.


It is difficult to quantify the global impact of Pavel Durov’s creations. In the early 2010s, VKontakte was a beacon of free expression for protesters in Russia and Ukraine. By 2021, Telegram assumed a similar role in the U.S. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, many rely on Telegram channels as their primary source of information.

Durov’s stated life goal is to offer people freedom and privacy. Will he succeed? Only time will tell.

Vlad Vovk
Writes about DeFi and cryptocurrencies from a technological perspective.