The Book Thief?

It was a frigid winter morning in Moscow. American rabbis took their seats with a Russian oligarch, the former Russian ambassador to the U.S., and other high-ranking officials. Their agenda: resolve an international battle for ownership of valuable artifacts and texts. The talk was set to end a nearly century-old dispute that had raged between U.S. presidents and Russian and Soviet leaders.

While this scene sounds plucked from a Cold War thriller, it is very real. The controversy involves a collection of holy books and texts known as the Schneerson Collection, named after Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Many in the Jewish community value these items because they once belonged to the fifth and sixth Rebbes. These respected Torah leaders descended from a line of religious and spiritual leaders associated with Chabad, a group of observant Orthodox Jews.

Rabbi_Menachem_Mendel_Schneerson (who owned the collection)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who owned the collection

The collection contains numerous writings of immense value to the Chabad community. According to Rabbi Cunin, an American who has worked for years to secure the release of the books, “Every day that [Russia] doesn’t return the library, it is like they are taking it again… Every day this collection is not returned is another day of a new group of people actively stealing it.”

The issue goes back to the first World War, when Bolshevik revolutionaries seized a warehouse in Moscow where the Collection’s owners had stashed a portion of the texts known as the “Library” for safekeeping. Then, during World War II, the German invasion of Poland forced the sixth Rebbe to evacuate his home and yeshiva, or religious school. He left the other portion of the collection, known as the “Archive,” in storage. Nazis looted the works and placed the “Archive” in a castle in Poland. Soon thereafter, the Soviets took the works for their own after the defeat of the Nazi regime, according to Rabbi Cunin. Today, both halves of the collection remain in the Kremlin’s possession.

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Rabbi Cunin, long a leader in Chabad, is now attempting to reacquire the texts with help from American political leaders on both sides of the aisle. The issue has attracted attention from U.S. leaders of the highest echelons. For instance, Al Gore received one of the books from the Russian government in 1993 as a gesture of goodwill. In 1994, President Bill Clinton brought back seven of the books on Air Force One the Russian Ministry of Culture had loaned to U.S. Library of Congress, though the loan’s duration remains a point of contention for the two sides. These eight books all remain in the Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. The rest stay mostly out of public view in Russia.

U.S. presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries of state have supported Rabbi Cunin’s cause for decades. In 1992, the Rabbi sent a letter to President Boris Yeltsin signed by every single member of the Senate. The catalyst for this broad involvement was the Russian government’s decision to take extra-judicial measures to overturn a decision in favor of Chabad, made by a Russian court in accordance with Russian law in the early 1990s.

Attempts to retrieve the books began in Moscow in 1988, and Rabbi Cunin’s father moved to the Russian capital two years later to help with the effort. After Chabad’s various attempts failed, the focus turned to American courts. In 2008, a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court gave Chabad a major victory by declaring that Russia was not entitled to sovereign immunity from Chabad’s legal claims. In 2010, the District Court entered a judgment in Chabad’s favor obligating Russia to return the entire collection to Chabad’s duly authorized representatives in the United States.

Then, in 2013, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared that Russia was in contempt. The judge ordered Russia to pay $50,000 in sanctions each day that it did not comply with the ruling. Russia, which had previously withdrawn from the legal proceeding, issued a statement calling the ruling “invalid,” “unlawful,” and “provocative.” Unsurprisingly, it has failed to pay the fines.

Seth Gerber, a law partner in the Santa Monica, California office of Bingham McCutchen LLP, discussed Chabad’s options for enforcing the judgment and contempt sanctions, such as taking advantage of “Russian government properties in the United States being used for commercial purposes.” The amount owed to Chabad now exceeds $18 million, but Gerber quickly pointed out that the case is “not about money… It is about one thing, and one thing only. Seeking the return of the religious books to their rightful owners which the Russian government has held in violation of international law for many decades now.”

In response to the 2010 judgment, Russia levied an embargo against the U.S. on all Russian art intended for museum displays in the United States. According to Gerber — notwithstanding Chabad’s reassurances that it will not enforce its judgment and sanctions by seeking to attach any art on loan for non-profit purposes — “Russia has still not retreated from this embargo.” As a result, museums around the country have been forced to postpone or even cancel exhibitions including works on loan from the Russian Federation. Additionally, a Russian ship meant for display at the London Olympics diverted course to ensure it would not be seized as part of Judge Lamberth’s ruling.

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High-ranking officials in America and Russia alike have showered this issue with attention. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has gotten involved, holding a press conference and standing steadfast behind his decision to keep the Collection in Moscow. Additionally, Russian media outlets have created trackers to display the quickly-increasing fines that the Russian Federation is responsible for paying to Chabad.

kremlin-170668_640Just as the Americans claim a vital stake in this matter, so do the Russians. An official statement from the Kremlin dubbed the works “a national treasure of the Russian people.” Naturally, the government hesitates to forfeit valuable works from its collection. In June 2013, Putin decided to move the Library to the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in an effort to bring a respectful end to the dispute. According to Tablet, an online magazine covering Jewish affairs, Chabad of Russia greeted this decision as a victory. Representatives from the Chabad headquarters, located in America, disagree with Chabad of Russia’s take on the situation. They continue insisting that the Russian government is in the wrong for resisting court decisions.

This conflict, teeming with all the old animosity that simmered between the Soviet Union and the U.S., has received notice from the most prominent American public officials as well. As a senator, for instance, Al Gore delivered a fiery speech on the floor of Congress. He denounced Russia’s lack of rule of law and the seemingly arbitrary nature of many of its government’s decisions.

Gore’s comments reveal an important underlying issue with the Russian government and its position in the international community. Many believe that Russia’s actions have long threatened its standing with business leaders around the globe and notable players in the world of international relations. When Russia’s leadership continually bends the rules over everything from elections to property rights, investors grow weary — and so do world leaders.

Putin PhotoPutin’s recent actions in Crimea have intensified Russia’s isolation and demonstrated Putin’s willingness to violate norms of conduct. While this military incursion garnered far more attention in both Russia and the U.S. than the Schneerson Collection dispute has, it nonetheless holds the same lesson as the Chabad-Russia controversy. As Russia’s leaders grasp for more power, the world impotently resists, wondering what aggression the country will undertake next.

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The Schneerson case is not the only time Americans and Russians have argued over art. Indeed, another example comes from close to home for Yale University students. The Politic corresponded by email with Dorothy Robinson, Yale’s General Counsel, who commented on the controversy over a Van Gogh painting in the University’s art collection. A Russian plaintiff sought ownership of The Night Café, which once belonged to his great grandfather. The Bolsheviks took the work of art in 1918, and it eventually came under the University’s ownership. A court resolved the case in favor of the University.

Robinson mentioned the specific law and precedent that the judge had used in arriving at the verdict. “The judge ruled in favor of Yale because our law does not allow U.S. courts to judge the lawfulness of the Soviet nationalization of property from Soviet Citizens,” she explained. The judge followed the example set by another case between the plaintiff and the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which holds another painting that had belonged to his great grandfather.

In this case, no members of the U.S. federal government — neither the President nor members of Congress — interfered with the court’s decisions, whether regarding Yale University or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Schneerson case, however, Putin resisted a ruling made by one of his country’s own courts (as well as the subsequent decisions by U.S. courts). Granted, the American defendant won in the Van Gogh case, whereas the Russian government lost out in the Schneerson decisions. Yet that it beside the point. What matters is a country’s willingness to comply with the judiciary’s decisions. And in the Schneerson incident, Russian leadership has shown that it will flex its muscles at the cost of the courts.

Clearly, the rules of international diplomacy and domestic affairs change greatly from time to time and from country to country. However, if Russia completely rewrites its rulebook for each case it confronts at home or every threat it perceives from abroad, it risks its reputation with world leaders and business executives. And as shown by Chabad’s tenacity, the individuals affected by Russia’s vacillations will not simply sit by. They will keep using diplomacy and legal measures in this newest iteration of the Cold War.

At the time this article was published, neither the Russian Embassy nor the Russian Foreign Ministry could be reached for comment. 

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