Future Tense

Russian Oligarchs Keep Dying in Suspicious Ways. Wikipedia Is Keeping a List.

Vladimir Putin sits at a large desk, his elbows on the table, in front of a computer.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has known a lot of oligarchs who have died recently. Sergei Ilyin/Getty Images

Russian oligarchs linked to large energy companies keep dying in weird ways: dubiousdefenestrations, questionable suicides, and even more outlandish ways, like in May, when Russian state-owned media outlet TASS reported that 43-year-old oil executive Alexander Subbotin died from a drug-induced heart attack at the Moscow home of a Jamaican shaman. Why’d the oligarch visit the shaman? To get toad venom as a hangover cure, allegedly.

On July 9, an anonymous Wikipedia editor with the username “cgbuff” started Wikipedia’s 2022 Russian mystery deaths article, which chronicles “unusual deaths of Russian-connected businessmen [that] occurred under what some sources suggest were suspicious circumstances.” When the article was first published, it listed just nine Russian oligarchs.Today, it chronicles 17 deaths, and it’s been viewed more than 400,000 times.

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In its very first week, the article was nominated for deletion, with some editors arguing there was “no connected conspiracy.” It’s also not easy to find reliable sources for recent Russia-related information (Wikipedia demands reputable citations, and Russia doesn’t have a free press). The article raises a host of questions, chiefly: How do you ensure that a Wikipedia page is significant and notable, not just unfettered rumor?

When it comes to the realm of rumor, Wikipedia is only as accurate as the news outlets it cites. Hours after the Feb. 24 attacks, Wikipedia had an article stating that the Ghost of Kyiv, a heroic pilot who shot down six Russian planes, was fact; after further reporting, current revisions clearly mark it as an apocryphal morale booster. The Wikipedia article about mysterious oligarchs has had a very different trajectory.

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One thing is clear: These people have all died. First there were Leonid Shulman and Alexander Tyulakov, a directors at Russian state-owned energy giant Gazaprom, who were found dead by apparent suicide in January and February respectively. The deaths continue: Former government official Igor Nosov had a stroke, and Ukrainian-born billionaire Mikhail Watford mysteriously died in the U.K.

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In March and April came the murder-suicides. Medical firm CEO Vasily Melnikov was found dead next to the bodies of his wife and two sons, who were stabbed to death. Bank executive Vladislav Avayev, his wife, and 13-year-old daughter were discovered dead in April; according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency, a pistol was in Avayev’s hand. In Northern Spain, natural gas executive Sergey Protosenya’s wife and daughter were discovered  dead in their beds with stab wounds and blunt ax hits, and Protosenya was found hanged from a handrail without bloodstains.

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In May, the businessmen kept dying and their causes of death became increasingly bizarre: Andrei Krukovsky, director of a ski resort owned by public energy company Gazprom, fell off a cliff while hiking, and the Jamaican shaman toad venom debacle went down.

Over the summer, the suspicious deaths slowed down. There was just Yuri Voronov, a businessman who was found with a gunshot wound to the head and a pistol next to his body. But when September rolled around, as Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive recaptured territory in Eastern Ukraine, there was a new wave of mysterious defenestrations and odd deaths.

Lukoil chairman Ravil Maganov plunged six stories out of a hospital in Moscow on Sept. 1. (Energy giant Lukoil, where Maganov was chairman, said he passed away following severe illness and didn’t mention the fall.) On Sept. 12, businessman Ivan Pechorin was found dead in Vladivostok, after allegedly falling off a luxury yacht and drowning in the Sea of Japan. Two days later, Vladimir Sungorkin, editor-in-chief of a Russian state newspaper, reportedly suffered a stroke and suffocated while on the way to lunch. And the next week, former head of Moscow Aviation Institute Anatoly Gerashchenko fell down a flight of stairs to his death. The week after that, railway executive Pavlo Pchelnikov allegedly shot himself on his apartment’s balcony.

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But Wikipedia, the internet’s de facto arbiter of importance, won’t publish a list of just anything. Content must take a long-term world-historical view and satisfy notability standards, and must have citations from reliable publications. You can’t make a list of things the cat dragged in, a list of notable people stung by jellyfish, nor a list of jellyfish stung by notable people (though people have tried to make all of these). If you observe that Russian leaders have alternated between bald and hairy for the past two centuries, you can’t fill Wikipedia with your independent research. Instead, you’d have to find and cite the various sources that discuss the well-established pattern (which, by the way, is discussed in the Wikipedia article “Bald-hairy”).

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Since the article was first published, the mystery deaths have received more press. Commentators have called the string of deaths an “epidemic of murder”; and  University of South Carolina associate professor Stanislav Markus, author of Property, Predation, and Protection: Piranha Capitalism in Russia and Ukraine, told  said, in a statement to Vox that we can “almost certainly rule out the official explanation of the deaths as suicides or poor health.” Now, the Wikipedia article’s n existence isn’t so controversial. It cites 25 sources, and more than sixty editors have contributed to its contents. “It’s important to maintain public, organized, and objective information about the war,” said the 32-year-old Dutch Wikipedian with username Nederlandes Leeuw who has made the most edits to the page. When he’s not working as a journalist, he devotes his energy to English Wikipedia’s extensive record of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

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The list is long — longer than the list of fallen Russian generals, as cybersecurity and disinformation researcher John Scott-Railton pointed out. But it’s just one of the many Wikipedia articles documenting the ongoing war.

In the face of disinformation campaigns and fines from Russia over information that doesn’t align with Kremlin narrative, Wikipedia editors have also documented the 2022 Russian mystery fires and the brazen Ukrainian border guard whose last communication was “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The Russian-language 2022 Invasion of Ukraine article is viewed more than 40,000 times daily on average, and Ukrainians have edited Wikipedia from bomb shelters. English-language Wikipedia is documenting the crisis, too: Fifty-eight editors have joined the English-language WikiProject Ukraine group, and thousands of others are contributing to their projects. They’ve tallied the journalists killed in Russia, built a thorough daily timeline, and debated whether the mass graves in the Ukrainian city of Izium should be called a “massacre.” (After a few days and 8,000 words, they reached no consensus.) Volunteers from around the world are organizing the firehose of news into a central, accessible repository that’s ad-free, tracking-free, and free.

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But that comes with problems. A study from CASM Technology published Monday uncovered an apparent web of pro-Russia editors on Wikipedia. The researchers identified 86 Wikipedia editors who were blocked after making disruptive edits on the English language Russo-Ukrainian War article and analyzed the other articles those accounts had edited. The considerable overlap between those 86 editors suggests systematic attempts to shift the article toward pro-Russia sentiment.

Wikipedia matters. Wikipedia’s stunning pageview spikes in response to current events show that it’s a vital source of up-to-the-minute, organized information, and as other social media sites have been plagued by misinformation, they’ve started using Wikipedia for fact checking. After the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russians started downloading it in droves, and Stephen Harrison wrote for Slate in March that “the number of people reading about Ukraine on Wikipedia is at an unprecedented high—spiking to more than 22 million English page views in the past month versus roughly 290,000 in February 2021. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recognizing the site’s importance, launched an “Ambitious Campaign to Enrich Wikipedia with Unbiased Information on Ukraine and the World” in April. But even though Wikipedia may seem to have everything, it has its limits. In a situation shrouded in speculation and plagued by a dearth of credible information, the encyclopedia can’t get into the mind of Putin. It can just keep a tally.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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