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Putin Refuses To Let the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Library Leave Moscow

An international cast of characters is embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute over the late rabbi’s personal collection of books

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In May 1992, the United States Senate signed a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, asking him to return the books; a year later, Al Gore, one of the campaign’s biggest supporters, managed to secure a 100-year-old Tanya volume, presented to him as a gesture of Russian good will. To Lubavitch’s delight, the Russian State Library gave President Clinton another seven books as an interlibrary loan to the Library of Congress—the books were brought directly from the airport to the Agudas Chasidei Chabad library in Crown Heights, rather than to Washington.

But in 1992, the Russian High Court suddenly canceled the decision to return the collection. It was only in 2004 that Chabad’s umbrella organization, Agudas Chasidei Chabad (represented by the formidable Nathan Lewin, the Washington-based lawyer who has represented several Jewish organizations in high-profile legal battles), sued the Russian government for withholding what they claimed was rightfully theirs, under the Foreign Sovereignties Immunities Act—a legal representation whose financing would be organized by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, one of the former Moscow emissaries. Russia participated actively in the U.S. litigation for 5 years, challenging the American courts’ jurisdiction over the matter. In 2009, however, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the American courts had jurisdiction, Russia withdrew from the court proceedings, insisting that the Appeals Court decision had no legal relevance in Russia.

***

Since January, as Russian-American relations have soured, thanks to Congress’ Magnitsky Act barring certain Russian officials from entrance to the United States, and then the more recent Edward Snowden affair, the transatlantic dispute over the Schneersohn library has only intensified. On Jan. 9, 2013, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled for civil contempt sanctions against the Russian Federation, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Russian State Library, and the Russian State Military Archive, for their refusal to return the documents, imposing a daily $50,000 fine on the Russian government for withholding the books.

In response, the Kremlin issued an official statement calling the Lamberth ruling “an absolutely unlawful and provocative decision” and threatening a response of “severe measures” if U.S. authorities try to seize Russian property. The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people,” Russian officials gravely stated; the director of the Oriental Center Sergey Kukushkin echoed these thoughts in his introduction to the collection’s Russian State Library catalog that “the history of this collection is inseparable from the history of the Library itself, as well as from the history of Russia.”

In June 2013, the Russian administration ruled that the collection would be transferred to Moscow’s new and wondrous Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. The decision is unprecedented, for a national library collection to be transferred to another location—though the Museum will now be considered another branch of the Russian State Library, and will continue to be under Russian government ownership and control. Putin announced the decision as “an end to this problem once and for all,” which Chabad of Russia greeted as a victory for the Lubavitch movement. At President Putin’s press conference, one of Russia’s chief rabbis Berel Lazar opened his remarks with a “Gut yom tov,” while Hasidim danced and drank l’chaim’s.

At headquarters in Crown Heights, however, people are not remotely as happy. Lewin & Lewin, Chabad’s legal representatives, decried the situation as “unacceptable” and rejected Putin’s claim that the dispute is now closed. “Russia’s own courts concluded in the 1990s that the Schneersohn Library was never nationalized and belongs to Chabad,” Lewin & Lewin said in a statement this summer. “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.”

“They belong here,” Rabbi Levin told me, breathlessly, as I stood to leave his study. “They’re in jail and they have to come back to where they belong.” He paused, shook his head, and added in a whisper, “The attachment of the Rebbe and the Frierdiker [Previous] Rebbe to the library was [so deep it was] not to be understood. Not to be understood.”

***

A few months after my visit to the library in Brooklyn, I traveled to Moscow to knock on larger doors: those of the Russian State Library, also known as the Lenin Library, where the iconic Dostoevsky monument sits in front, a flock of pigeons at his feet. An elderly librarian guided me to a 1990s-era red telephone near the card catalog. “Dial this code, they’ll tell you where to find it.”

A woman’s voice answered. “You mean the Schneersohn collection? Excuse me, who are you?” I told her my Russian name and that I’m a student.

“You know, devushka, there’s a big debate over these books now, it’s not so simple.”

“Listen, I’m a humanities student, I just want to see the books—”

“What, you think just anyone can see them? You must come with a letter from your director and fill out an application for permission in advance. It’ll take a month to process.”

My flight back to New York was in two days.

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Putin Refuses To Let the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Library Leave Moscow

An international cast of characters is embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute over the late rabbi’s personal collection of books