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Cold war over Schneerson Collection

Published time: March 25, 2011 11:23
Edited time: March 25, 2011 15:59
Russia turns down demands of American Hasids to “return” books and manuscripts from the Schneerson Collection

Russia turns down demands of American Hasids to “return” books and manuscripts from the Schneerson Collection

The American Museum of Russian Icons has finally agreed to terminate the display of 37 icons from Russia's Andrey Rublev Museum and return them to Russia after the Russian Foreign Ministry's order issued last week.

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA has agreed to terminate its display and return the exhibits from the Russian Andrey Rublev Museum to Moscow, the owner of the Museum Gordon Lankton told ITAR-TASS news agency.

After a week of doubts, Lankton made the decision to close the exhibition ahead of schedule in order not to have difficulties visiting Russia in the future. However, the museum owner added that no compensation will cover his losses from the early termination of the exhibition in the US, which should have been operating through July 25.

When exactly the icons will be sent back to Russia is still unclear.

At the end of last week, the Russian Ministry of Culture ordered that the Russian icons should be immediately returned from the US, being afraid that they might be seized by the United States.

The reason for the Russian authorities to worry about the precious masterpieces was the aggravating conflict that aroused between the US, Russia and the American Hasidic community over the Schneerson Collection of sacred Jewish books and manuscripts about a year ago.

The Schneerson collection of irreplaceable Jewish books and manuscripts sacred to the Lubavitch Hasidic community has been residing at the Russian State Library and the Russian State Military Archive. It is known to consist of two parts: a library seized by the Soviet government after the 1917 revolution in Russia, and an archive believed to have been captured by the Nazis when they took Warsaw in 1939, subsequently seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

The Lubavitch Hasidic community brought a claim for ownership over the Schneerson Collection to court in the US. The court ordered that Russia should transfer the collection to the Brooklyn-based Judaic Chabad Lubavitch movement. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the verdict by a federal judge in Washington issued in the end of August 2010.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of Information and Press said that the American Hasidic movement Chabad “spent more than 15 years demanding on unclear grounds that Russia should 'return' to the U.S. the so-called Schneerson library, a collection of books on Judaism, which had for centuries been collected in the Smolensk province by the family of the Schneerson rabbis, subjects of the Russian Empire."

The library of some 12,000 books and 50,000 manuscripts has been collected since the 18th century by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn and his descendants. Before the revolution of 1917, the collection was held in the Rumyantsevskaya Library, which later helped start the State Lenin Library, and the books were subsequently nationalized. In the early 1990’s, the Hasidic community demanded the return of the collection to the Hasids. In 1991, the State Arbitration of what was then the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic had promised that the State Lenin Library would return the books and manuscripts to the Hasids. However, the library refused, and in 1992 the plenary assembly of the Supreme Arbitration Court of Russia nullified all the previous decisions.

"There are no reasons" for moving the collection, the presidential envoy for international cultural cooperation Mikhail Shvydkoy told Interfax. These archives have been in the Russian Federation's ownership all through the 20th century, and cannot be alienated or moved on a permanent basis."

Pending the settlement of the Schneerson Collection issue, no exhibitions of Russian cultural valuables are possible in the United States, he added. Several Russian Museums including the Moscow-based Tretyakov Gallery have refused to display their exhibits in the USA.

"It is obvious to any legal expert that this verdict is insignificant from a legal point of view and represents an egregious breach of the generally accepted rules and principles of international law," the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs stated.

"The Schneerson library has never belonged to the Chabad. It never left Russia, and was nationalized because there were no legal heirs in the Schneerson family. The 'return' of these books to the US is not an issue in principle," the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Information and Press said in comments posted on its website.

"On the contrary, it is American Hasids who must return to Russia seven books from the same collection that were lent to them from the Russian State Library in 1994 through the US Library of Congress for two months and have withheld illegally for 16 years now."