A number of people have asked in recent days if Yevgeny Prigozhin, the murderous Russian mercenary leader who died in a plane crash last week, was Jewish, having seen sensationalist media headlines suggesting that he was.
The first round of headlines claiming Prigozhin was Jewish appeared some months ago. As I said at the time, there is no evidence whatsoever that the claim is true. The rumors that Prigozhin “had Jewish blood” were started by Ukrainian websites that were trying to discredit Prigozhin among his fellow Russians.
These false claims were then picked up in an irresponsible way by prominent Israeli media outlets, no doubt eager for page clicks in today’s overly competitive, increasingly down-market media environment. These include the online edition of Israel’s best-selling newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
Wikipedia now wrong and locked
Prigozhin’s Wikipedia page, which appears in 71 languages, is now locked and cannot be edited. It says that Prigozhin’s father is Jewish, referencing an article in the Times of Israel. That article is also incorrect. It has been changed to reflect this, but the Wikipedia entry has not.*
Other media continue to promote this falsehood. See below, for example, from the (London) Jewish Chronicle two days ago. The headline and article are still on their website at the time of writing.
There are other examples too. For example, in the prominent New York Jewish paper the Forward.
Why do the media even mention this unconfirmed rumor?
I have checked and, as far as I can tell, there is no evidence that Prigozhin was in any way Jewish. Indeed, his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, who died alongside him, was an outright Nazi with swastika and SS tattoos.
Prigozhin’s mother was a nurse in a hospital in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and his father was a mining engineer who died when Prigozhin was nine.
Prigozhin’s mother later married a Russian man of partly Jewish origin, but this, of course, does not make Prigozhin Jewish. He was not brought up Jewish and his paternal grandfather was a nationalist Russian war hero.
In a world where antisemitism is unfortunately still rife, these kinds of headlines are unhelpful, to put it mildly.
“When you come at the king, you best not miss”
Prigozhin’s death last Wednesday marks the violent end of a savage career that took him from selling hot dogs on the streets of St, Petersburg to committing atrocities—particularly in Syria, but also in seven African countries and in Ukraine. Few tears will be shed for him.
As we know, he failed in his attempted coup against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in June. Following that, Putin is widely believed to have ordered Prigozhin’s assassination.
As the character Omar Little says in the hit TV series “The Wire”: “When you come at the king, you best not miss.”
In fact, the only person who is Jewish in this article is “The Wire” writer and creator David Simon.
*Prigozhin’s Wikipedia page was changed a day after this column was published. The accusation that he was Jewish was removed, citing this article as a source.