When Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the order for Russian troops to invade Ukraine, he set off a search for information on his friends and supporters known as the Russian oligarchs. Some of the sought-after information is on the location of their yachts, luxury jet planes, and financial assets, in order for Western governments to seize these assets and pressure Putin to stop the war.
There are several dozen Russians commonly called oligarchs. They include some of the richest people in the world who acquired their riches with the support of Putin's regime and in turn have supported Putin and his policies. They tend to be secretive, carefully protecting their privacy. The New Yorker in its article "How Putin's Oligarchs Bought London" cites Oliver Bullough's view that the oligarchs came to London for, among other reasons, luxury homes, experienced lawyers and tax accountants, PR firms, and "'reputation managers' for inconvenient backstories".
There are many articles on Wikipedia about the oligarchs. We selected the articles on some of the richest and best known to see if they – or more likely their employees – have edited Wikipedia to remove embarrassing information, and whether known sockpuppets have edited the articles about them.
The Signpost's investigation has found that well known oligarch Alisher Usmanov hired the PR firm RLM Finsbury, whose employees then edited the Wikipedia article about Usmanov. Also, employees of the infamous PR firm Bell Pottinger, who were later blocked as sockpuppets, edited the articles of lesser known oligarchs Alexander Nesis and Arkadiy Abramovich.
Bell Pottinger was exposed to the world as an unethical Wikipedia whitewasher in 2011 following an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Bell Pottinger had told the reporters, who posed as Uzbeki officials known for human rights violations, that they could remove material from Wikipedia using "dark arts". Bell Pottinger continued to represent controversial clients. In 2017 they were forced to close after it was discovered that they were working for the Gupta family using a social media campaign that promoted racial hatred in South Africa.
RLM Finsbury was exposed as a whitewasher in 2012 when they were caught editing Wikipedia for Usmanov. They admitted their mistake and promised never to repeat it. Finsbury also represented another Russian oligarch, Andrei Skoch, and attempted to have information about his yacht removed from the social media site SuperYacht Fan.
But not all the articles on oligarchs that we examined showed such direct evidence of them rewriting the articles about themselves. The article on Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea F.C. and the father of Arkadiy, more or less appeared to neutrally present the facts of his life, even though it had been edited by about 50 now-blocked sockpuppets (deceptive users of multiple accounts). The articles on four other oligarchs were of varying quality with varying levels of evidence of sockpuppeting, but together they show a pattern of sockpuppet edits, often performed by the same sockpuppets or sockfarms (groups of sockpuppets who appear to be cooperating, and who are often blocked as a group) on the articles of multiple oligarchs.
Sockpuppets do not usually whitewash the same article with each edit. Some may simply update the oligarch's net worth frequently or copy edit the article. Others may add positive information or push negative information toward the bottom of the article. Some may even appear to be working against the oligarch's interest.
We remind our readers that any investigation of onWiki editing cannot prove who edited the articles based purely on editing records and other information made available on Wikipedia. For example an editor may mimic a sockpuppet or undeclared paid editor in an effort to embarrass the subject of an article, a practice known as "joe jobbing". We can, however, gather the evidence that is available either on-Wiki or off-Wiki.
An experienced Wikipedia editor, who asked to remain anonymous, described how the oligarch articles looked before the war.
Many of these articles had all the hallmarks of conflict-of-interest editing: The subject is highly controversial, but the controversies are obfuscated. They are lost in the body of the article among extensive details, trivia and poorly sourced puffery. This may include detailed coverage of every single philanthropic endeavor the subject has ever been involved in. The same pattern can be seen in articles related to political and economic elites in kleptocracies and autocracies in general.
Exceptions to this rule include the articles on Roman Abramovich and Alexander Nesis. "I was surprised by the extent that the article covered how Abramovich earned his wealth", said the anonymous editor, pointing out a recent BBC News article with new evidence, "yet the Wikipedia article had included similar material long before". The Nesis article seems "relatively small for an article heavily edited by COI accounts. COI accounts usually fill these articles with mundane trivia and puffery while also removing negative content."
The Wikipedia articles The Signpost investigated include the following:
Alisher Usmanov is considered to be among the richest and most powerful of the oligarchs and one of the closest to Putin. Although he was born in Uzbekistan, he is a resident of Russia and owns or controls Metalloinvest, MegaFon, and the newspaper Kommersant.
From August 2007 through April 2011 a firm controlled by Usmanov was the largest shareholder of Arsenal F.C. as he tried and failed to gain full control of the club. Usmanov's yacht, the Dilbar, valued at about $594 million, was seized by German authorities in early March. 
Sixteen now-banned sockpuppets – some from well known sockfarms – have edited the article. These includeand – both from the Antony1821 sockfarm, as well as and – both from the Mikenew1953 sockfarm. The editing on the talk page was extensive and contentious. It included edits favoring Usmanov by three now-blocked editors , (who is also globally locked), and (who was blocked for undeclared paid editing).
The strongest evidence that Usmanov's employees edited the Wikipedia article about him is provided by The Times, with additional reporting by The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. of a 2012 story that the RLM Finsbury PR firm which was employed by Usmanov to help in the London IPO of the firm MegaFon, edited the Wikipedia article to remove Usmanov's criminal history. He was convicted for corruption, fraud and the theft of state property and served six years in prison before the conviction was expunged in 1989. Finsbury admitted making the edits, but claimed that Usmanov was unaware of the edits and did not ask for them.
Perhaps because of his long exposure in the British press as the owner of Chelsea F.C., the controversies surrounding Abramovich have been well covered in the Wikipedia article about him. Sockpuppets who have actively edited the article, such as Avaya1, have tended to copy edit, remove edits biased against Abramovich, or document his gifts to charities, e.g. here or in one case paint him as a victim of an unscrupulous Russian scammer .
Over 50 now-blocked sockpuppets edited this article. These include Earflaps, who edited articles on other oligarchs and on financial articles as part of the MusicLover650 sockfarm; CoffeeStation95, part of the Antony1821 sockfarm; DeltaGr, part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm; and Russavia, a former Wikimedia Commons administrator who engaged in broad disruption of the English Wikipedia, and promoted the Russian airline industry.
Arkadiy Abramovich is the eldest son of Roman Abramovich. He became established in business in about 2010 when he was age 17. His investments have been in the oil, gas, and financial industries.
The article was edited by the sockpuppet Bell Pottinger. The firm admitted to using "black arts" on Wikipedia while editing for the government of Uzbekistan but not for either Abramovich., who was blocked for editing for the disgraced and now-defunct PR firm
Oleg Deripaska also made his first billions during the Yeltsin era privatizations, mostly in aluminum. He has owned Rusal, the world's largest aluminum producer and the company Basic Element. After Yeltsin left office, he became close to Putin.
Thirty now-blocked sockpuppets edited the article about him, including some of the same socks who edited the article on Roman Abramovich, including Earflaps and CoffeeStation95. Selimabner6, part of the BurritoSlayer sock farm, completely rewrote many sections of the article in nine consecutive edits , whitewashing much of the article, for example changing "oligarch" to "business magnate".
Mikhail Fridman may be the most sympathetic oligarch. According to a March 17 interview in Bloomberg Business Week "Broke Oligarch Says Sanctioned Billionaires Have No Sway Over Putin" he was worth about $15 billion before the start of the war and may be worth $10 billion now, but because of the sanctions placed on him, he doesn’t have access to most of his cash now. He was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine and has spoken out against the war. He is a longtime resident of London and is a citizen of both Russia and Israel. He became an entrepreneur in 1988 before the break-up of the Soviet Union. He made much of his money in banking with Alfa-Bank and later in oil with TNK-BP.
In 2018 SmartSE, a trusted editor and opponent of undeclared paid editing, wrote on the talk page of the Mikhail Fridman article "This article was written entirely by who was an undisclosed paid editor." SmartSE was only slightly exaggerating: from September – November 2016, Earflaps made 71 edits to the Wikipedia article, almost completely rewriting it. Five other sockpuppets who edited the article, including Glaewnis (who was blocked for undeclared paid editing), and – members of the Pionier sockfarm, as well as members of the BurritoSlayer and Antony1821 sockfarms.
German Khan is a close business associate of Mikhail Fridman, working with both Alfa Group and TNK-BP. The Wikipedia article about him has been tagged with a conflict-of-interest warning since December 2016 which was placed there by (who was not acting in his role as WMF trustee). Doc James requested the original sockpuppet investigation into Earflaps after noticing that he had written the majority of the article. Four other now-blocked socks, including Russavia and the undeclared paid editor Glaewnis, have edited the article.
Alexander Nesis is an engineer who got his start in the shipbuilding industry. He founded the ICT Group, which owns companies in the engineering, precious metals, and finance industries. Though the Wikipedia article on Nesis is fairly modest and well written, he may deserve the rank of oligarch. He is ICT Group's largest shareholder and had a net worth of $2.9 billion in 2020.
Mofgl68, an editor working for Bell Pottinger, was a single purpose account, who only edited the Nesis article, with one edit to ICT Group. Other blocked sockpuppets editing the article were Mddkpp and Oranjblud, who were blocked during the same sockpuppet investigation, as well as , and who was part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm.
Andrei Skoch began his professional life as a banker and then met Usmanov and entered the metals industry, and eventually became a shareholder in Lebedinsky Mining, and Metalloinvest. In 1999 he was elected to Russia's Duma. The Guardian reported in 2012 that he was suspected of having ties to the mafia group Solntsevskaya Bratva. In 2020 his net worth was reported at over $6 billion. He hired RLM Finsbury as his PR firm – which also represented Usmanov at about the same time. Finsbury tried to remove information about Skoch's ownership of the yacht Madame Gu from a social media website.
Only two editors to have been blocked for sockpuppeting after editing the Wikipedia article about Skoch, including DeltaGr, part of the Mikenew1953 sockfarm. The now-blocked paid editor Glaewnis also edited the article.
We do not conclude that all of the above named oligarchs used paid editors to whitewash the Wikipedia pages about themselves. There is little doubt, however, that Alisher Usmanov hired the PR firm RLM Finsbury who then edited his Wikipedia article. Finsbury admitted as much in 2012. The evidence on Arkadiy Abramovich and Alexander Nesis is almost as strong. Bell Pottinger admitted that they edited the Wikipedia articles of their clients, though they did not mention the specific clients. Wikipedia's checkusers were then able to identify the Bell Pottinger paid accounts, including one which edited the Arkadiy Abranovich article and another which edited the Alexander Nesis article.
The evidence on the other five oligarchs is circumstantial. Fifty now-blocked sockpuppets or paid editors edited the article on Roman Abramovich, thirty edited the Deripaska article, but only six edited the Fridman article, only five edited the German Khan article, and only three edited the article on Skoch. The pattern of editing by the same sockpuppets or sockfarms suggests that a network of sockpuppets were used to edit many articles about oligarchs.