Russian and American Chabad Arms Split Over Schneerson Library

Putin's Proposal Aims To End Long, Bitter Legal Battle

It Belongs Here: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with chief rabbi Berel Lazar, left, and Alexander Boroda at a new Jewish museum in Moscow.
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It Belongs Here: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with chief rabbi Berel Lazar, left, and Alexander Boroda at a new Jewish museum in Moscow.

By Paul Berger

Published March 03, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has fought for decades to retrieve the Schneerson Collection from Russia. In recent years, the lawsuits have strained already delicate relations between the United States and Russia.

Two years ago, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the collection had to be returned to Chabad. As a result, the Russian government told Russian museums to stop lending artwork to American institutions in case Chabad’s lawyers seized them.

This past January, Royce Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, imposed a $50,000-a-day fine on the Russian government for each day that it does not return the collection.

The following month, Russia’s foreign ministry suggested that the Russian State Library sue the Library of Congress for the return of seven books from the Schneerson Library that it loaned to Washington during the mid-1990s.

A representative of the Library of Congress said that because the library had passed the seven tomes to Chabad in Brooklyn, “we have no further direct knowledge about the books.” The representative added, “The library has no comment about the potential litigation.”

Meanwhile, at the end of past year, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a bill that imposed financial and travel restrictions on prominent Russians implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who died in a Moscow jail. In retaliation, Russia passed a law banning Americans from adopting Russian children.

American officials have tried to distance themselves from the Chabad lawsuit, even appealing to Lamberth that fining Russia could be counterproductive to getting back the Schneerson Collection. But Russian diplomats, quoted by the Kremlin-backed Russia Today at the beginning of February, accused American officials of moving “sluggishly” on the issue.

That’s why it was significant that shortly after Putin suggested moving the Schneerson Library to Moscow’s Jewish museum, there was an apparent thaw in rhetoric coming from the Kremlin. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, told the Interfax news agency February 25: “The problem [of the Schneerson Collection] does not lie in relations between Russia and the United States. It lies in relations between Russia and a Jewish community registered in the United States.”

Calls to leaders of Agudas Chasidei Chabad and to Boruch Shlomo Cunin, a Lubavitch rabbi who has been central to the effort to retrieve the Schneerson Collection, were not returned.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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