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.”