Moscow — It takes less than 10 minutes, a passport and the help of a friendly librarian to hold in your hands one of thousands of religious texts at the heart of an international legal battle between Russia and America.
That’s what I found when I traveled in January to Moscow, where I came face to face with dozens of fragile, beautifully illustrated books, some with intricate notes handwritten in Hebrew around the text.
I had come to test a compromise that President Vladimir Putin offered last year to solve a decades-long dispute between the Russian government and American leaders of the large Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement based in New York.
The two sides have argued for decades over a library and an archive, known collectively as the Schneersohn Collection, assembled by the early rabbinic leaders of Chabad.
In recent years, the dispute has spilled over into secular American life. It has worsened America’s already strained diplomatic relations with Russia, triggered an art-lending freeze between major Russian and American museums, and, most recently, led to a lawsuit filed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture in a Moscow court against the Library of Congress.
While the fight over the Schneersohn Collection seems intractable from New York, in Moscow the path toward a resolution appears to be in sight.
The Schneersohn Library, which was nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution, has spent most of the past century at the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, in Moscow.
Chabad’s leaders have insisted for more than 20 years that the books be returned to their world headquarters in Brooklyn.
Then, last February, Putin suggested a third way: The Schneersohn books would leave the Russian State Library. But instead of disappearing overseas, they would be moved to Moscow’s new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a $50 million Chabad-controlled institution that was partly bankrolled by Russian oligarchs. The first delivery of several hundred books arrived at the museum last June.