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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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“But the State Library’s statement says explicitly that it’s open to the public—”

“They’ve moved them today,” she said abruptly. “The books are already being moved to the Museum of Tolerance.” Then the phone line went dead.

It was pouring the next morning when I met with Rabbi Boruch Gorin, scholar, editor of the prolific Knizhniki, a Russian-language publishing house of Jewish literature funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, and a spokesperson for Russia’s Chief Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar—the Italian-born Chabad leader who earned the reputation, among Russian Jews at least, as a member of Putin’s boys’ club. (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher.) Regardless of rumor, what’s indisputable is that Lazar’s connections have been invaluable to Chabad growth in Russia today: Throughout the country, the movement has 190 communities, 120 emissaries, and a school system that numbers more than 10,000 students. “Rabbi Lazar advises on religious relations, in an unprecedented relationship with the President of the Russian Federation,” Rabbi Gorin told me as we sat down in his study. “And yes, in regard to your question about the books, 350 documents were transported yesterday, out of a library of 4,500, we estimate.” The signatures inside the books would need to be examined further, in a painstaking process of transporting and identifying, that will take eight to nine months. Gorin explained that the museum intends to create a digital library, making the books entirely accessible to the public.

“For the past 100 years, since 1915, the books were no longer seen by their owner. We don’t even know what the books are. All these years, they were never described, the collection is undocumented—”

“But isn’t there a handwritten catalog somewhere?” I asked, thinking back to Rabbi Levin’s trembling hands. Gorin paused and then answered: “Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn rushed to send all the books for refuge, in 35 crates. His catalog that he wrote from memory had 12,500 titles total, and we’re not sure if it’s accurate at all. So, the Lenin Library has to identify them first.” He explained that the Lenin Library has always had two Hebraists on staff, specialists who will be responsible for the cataloging.

“Even in the Soviet era? Hebraists in the Lenin Library?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, always,” Gorin said, smiling. “No one outside knew, of course. The Schneersohn books are only part of the Lenin Library’s Hebrew collection. There’s also Gunzburg, Repeze, hundreds of thousands of books. Later we will understand what we have received and not received, and then we will continue the conversation with Lenin Library in retrieving whatever books are missing. We’re most interested, of course, in the handwritten manuscripts.”

When I asked Gorin about the history of the dispute, he answered calmly, with the articulate Russian of a Moscow intellectual. “If [the library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad in Crown Heights] wanted the books, they should have fought harder in the early ’90s,” he said. “There was a brief window of time then when the Russians were more lenient about these things. In the early nineties a group of experts came, and identified the books as Schneersohn collection pieces, which was huge, but they left because of a conflict. But at least they found the books.” It is also true, he asserted, that the fact that the books were hidden in Moscow saved them from being destroyed during the war. “And understand that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” he said. “Most of the libraries elsewhere were destroyed; in the ghettos and during the Leningrad siege, the books ended up being used as substitute for firewood.”

“So, the library, if it’s so typical—is it really a ‘national treasure of the Russian people’?” I asked.

Gorin waved a hand. “That’s all emotion, rhetoric. The issue has nothing to do with Russian history or the Russian people. It’s simply the federal Russian law. Giving away books from any of the three national libraries is not up for discussion with the Russian government.”

“And what about the manuscripts in the military archive—not the ones in the Lenin Library?” I asked. “Is there a difference?”

He nodded vigorously. “This is the biggest mistake that people are making—the manuscripts that are being kept in the military archive are not subject to the same Russian federal laws that books in a national library are. They’re different stories, different laws. [The library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad] should differentiate between the two and fight for its right to the manuscripts in the military archive, which they’re the rightful owners of. That collection, by present Russian law, may and must be taken out. But instead they’ve deliberately decided to conflate the two stories into one, which in my opinion is a mistake on their part.”

“And what about the legal precedent here—is Putin worried about other similar claims cropping up?”

“Yes,” Gorin agreed. “Something like that.”

While newspapers rushed to paint the conflict as one over ownership of a Jewish treasure—few mentioned that the Russians aren’t so worried about losing precious Jewish manuscripts, but rather about setting a legal precedent for returning nationalized Soviet property at large.

“The Russians are afraid,” the director of research for the Claims Conference, Dr. Wesley Fisher, told me one evening over dinner in a Minsk hotel. Fisher sighed when I casually mentioned the Schneersohn library. “Something that became part of the national holdings in the 1920s will cause a whole series of issues with what was similarly nationalized from the nobility and other ethnic groups, including the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russians are afraid that everything will unravel. And as for the Americans, frankly, it’s not clear to me that it’s a good way of handling these matters.”

Fisher’s point here is noteworthy; the American handling of the affair seems to play along a different set of rules than the one that the Russians are playing by, and it’s questionable if there’s even a single move left to make on this complicated chessboard. The dispute over the Schneersohn library isn’t so much a Chabad rift between Crown Heights and Moscow, or a part of a larger Russian-American political conflict—the latter is sufficiently tense without Judaica involved.

It’s a clash of mentality more than anything else, a battle of the American value of property rights against Russian realpolitik. While Chabad’s U.S. legal representatives refuse to surrender, Gorin and Lazar are not so worried about the principle of the matter—they’re bending to the will of Russian policy, for the sake of the future of the Russian Jewish community. It’s a Diaspora reality that Jews in Russia know well, but one that perhaps their determined American brethren have forgotten, one in which one stops asking questions and swallows the lot of being an Outsider. “Lazar is still treading on thin ice,” Anton Nossik, one of Russia’s most popular and powerful bloggers, explained to me recently, lighting a cigarette and then lifting one foot. “Regardless of how often he makes a l’chaim with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, he’s on thin ice, and he’s standing on it with only one foot, too.” And given their position, Moscow’s Chabad leadership is well aware of the necessity for a Solomonic compromise; taking a page out of their elders’ books, perhaps they’ve decided that finding favor in the tsar’s eyes might just be worth the price.

Somewhere in Moscow, as the holiday of Simchat Torah passes, archivists work quickly to catalog and digitize centuries-old Hebrew documents; while in a far-off study in Brooklyn, an elderly rabbi still waits for the books he couldn’t return to his Rebbe.

***

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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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