Russia Warns of Retaliation Over U.S. Ruling on a Jewish Collection

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MOSCOW -- The Russian government warned angrily on Thursday that it would retaliate against any effort by the United States to enforce a ruling by a federal judge in Washington who has ordered Russia to pay fines of $50,000 a day for refusing to return a disputed collection of Jewish books and documents to the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic group.

The judge, Royce C. Lamberth of United States District Court, imposed the fines on Wednesday, saying the Russian government had done nothing to comply with a judgment that he issued in 2010 ordering it to return the texts, more than 12,000 books and 50,000 religious papers known as the Schneerson Collection.

It was not immediately clear what form the Kremlin's threatened retaliation would take. In an earlier reaction to the dispute over the collection, which has now lasted decades, it forbade its state-run museums, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, to lend works to American museums. That highly unusual ban, instituted in February 2011, has left gaps in some major exhibitions.

The Kremlin said it feared that those works would be seized and held as ransom in the dispute, even though American officials have insisted that such seizures are prohibited by law.

The levying of the fines, potentially totaling more than $18 million a year but unlikely to be paid, added tension to Russian-American relations, which have become strained over the past year. Most recently, the countries have been at bitter odds over a Russian law banning adoptions of Russian children by American families, which itself was retaliation for an American law punishing Russians accused of violating human rights.

"The Russian Foreign Ministry regards as absolutely unlawful and provocative the decision of the federal court in Washington," the government said in a statement on Thursday. "We have repeatedly stated that this verdict is extraterritorial in character, contradicts international law and is legally void."

The government called the Schneerson Collection, which is held partly in the Russian State Library and partly in the Russian Military Archives, a "national treasure of the Russian people." It added, "U.S. officials are hopefully aware that if Russian state property, not protected by diplomatic immunity, is seized in the United States, as Chabad is demanding as an injunctive measure, we will have to take a tough response."

At a hearing this month, the Obama administration urged Judge Lamberth not to impose the fines, saying that they would further sour relations with Russia and imperil diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. But in his decision, Judge Lamberth rejected those arguments and said he saw no reason to expect diplomacy to succeed.

In 1991, a court in Moscow ordered that the collection be turned over to the Chabad organization, but the Soviet Union soon collapsed, and the judgment was set aside by the Russian authorities. The Chabad group filed a lawsuit in the United States in 2004, but in 2009, after Russia failed in an effort to have the case thrown out, the Kremlin withdrew its lawyers and declared that the court had no authority to adjudicate the matter.

"Defendants have steadily resisted all legal and diplomatic efforts to compel them to return the collection for at least two decades," Judge Lamberth wrote in his ruling. He added, "The United States' claim that sanctions would 'risk damage to significant foreign policy interests' is similarly unconvincing."

Indeed, damage from the dispute, at least from a cultural perspective, has already been severe. The world's most prestigious museums rely heavily on international loans to put together large and lucrative shows, and such lending was common between the United States and Russia until Russia imposed its moratorium.

Officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art said that they were unable to obtain works for several current or recent exhibits because of Russia's refusal to loan artwork. The curator of an exhibit on 18th century German-made furniture requested five items from St. Petersburg, including the Apollo Desk manufactured for Catherine the Great in 1783-84. The five pieces were considered so important that they were included in the exhibit catalog along with a note that the ban on loans might prevent them from reaching New York. Curators also requested one painting by Matisse from the Pushkin Museum for an exhibit now under way, as well as terra cotta models and drawings by Bernini for an exhibition that closed on Jan. 6.

Although Chabad now has a large presence in Russia, particularly in Moscow, where it helped build a huge Jewish history museum that opened late last year, Lubavitch officials here said they had no official role in the dispute.

The lawsuit was filed by Agudas Chasidei Chabad, an organization created by the Lubavitch leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to handle property of the Schneerson family after his death. Rabbi Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Lubavitch movement, who was commonly known as the Rebbe, died in 1994.

The Lubavitch movement originated in western Russia, and the holdings in the Schneerson Collection belonged to the fifth Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, and his son, the six leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. Some holdings were apparently turned over to the state for safekeeping around the time of the Russian Revolution; others were taken by Yosef Schneersohn to Warsaw, then confiscated by the Nazis and taken to Berlin, only to be confiscated yet again by the Soviet Army and returned to Moscow.

Today, much of the Schneerson Collection is tucked into a well-lighted corner room of the Collection of Oriental Literature in an annex of the Russian State Library, across Mokhovaya Street from the main Lenin Library building.

Through the front door, and past several reading rooms, there is a hall dedicated to Yiddish and Hebrew studies with perhaps 20 desks. The Schneerson Collection itself is held in its own room nearby, in 16 wooden bookcases with glass doors and locks that line the green walls.

Marina V. Melanina, the general director of the Center for Oriental Literature, said that about 30 to 60 visitors each month asked to see holdings in the collections, mostly Hasidic Jews recognizable in their traditional black coats and hats.

"Most of the interest is in tour groups who come to us, not only Russian ones but from America, not long ago from Australia; Israelis come too," Ms. Melanina said. "For readers, there is not much demand. There are a couple of academics who order books in the catalog and read them."

Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, said that although the rabbi was a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, he had no authority over the Schneerson Collection.

"We are not involved in this matter, and are not even consulted by the American side about their steps," Mr. Gorin said. "The moral answer to this question is very clear: the collection has to be returned to its owners, to the Chabad in Brooklyn. The legal part of it? We are not specialists in that."

Mr. Gorin acknowledged the theoretical possibility of a settlement that would put the collection in Chabad's custody but keep it in Russia, perhaps in a new library. "It's a question of a settlement with the American Chabad," he said. "If they will give us this opportunity or ask us to find this opportunity, we will try to find it."

Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow, and Carol Vogel from New York.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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