The Library of Congress is the latest of many cultural organizations to be pulled into the destructive orbit of a long-running dispute between the Hasidic group Chabad-Lubavitch and the Russian government. The Lubavitchers left behind a large ibrary of manuscripts and books which they considered sacred to their spiritual movement when they fled Soviet Russia in the 1930’s. According to an article in The Art Newspaper by Sophia Kishkovsky, published online May 7, 2012, “Russia and US Continue to Discuss Cultural Standoff,”
The objects in dispute include more than 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents, usually referred to as the Schneerson library and archive, gathered by five generations of rabbis of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Most ended up in the Russian State Library and the Russian Military Archive after being seized at various times by the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and the Soviet Red Army.
Kishkovsky explains that a Moscow court actually ruled in 1991 that the materials should be returned to the Lubavitchers, who are now headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. But before the Russians complied with the order, the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the players and the order was rescinded. Now the Russian authorities say that the materials are the cultural property of Russia under Russian law. They say that the members of Chabad are welcome to come and study the materials where they are held, in
a reading room of the Russian state library’s Centre for Oriental Literature, where functional, glass-covered bookcases hold rows of volumes, with stamps and other markings reflecting centuries of use. The centre is in a pre-revolution mansion across the street from the state library’s Stalin-era headquarters.
So, how are U.S. cultural institutions being dragged into the whirlpool of this sad story? Chabad-Lubavitch filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Washington, D.C. against the Russian government to retrieve their library and manuscripts in 2004. In 2010, the court issued an order that the Russian government should return the materials to Chabad, and that they be fined $50,000 per day for failing to comply. Now, on January 16, 2013, the court issued another order, per another Art News article, despite pleas from the Obama administration to stay out of the matter (yet another Art News article here).
When the lawsuit was first filed, the Russian cultural envoy was still working with American counterparts and organizations to try to smooth things over. But Russian museums and other lenders of valuables began to withdraw offers. For instance, Chabad had to file with the court undertakings not to seize any items loaned to nonprofit organizations such as museums. Some shows were delayed, and other museums had shows cancelled:
Houston Museum of Natural History, which had to delay indefinitely the opening of “Treasures from the Hermitage: Russia’s Crown Jewels”, originally set to open 20 May, and the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, where 37 icons from Moscow’s Andrei Rublev Museum were dramatically pulled at the last minute.
A few American museums began to counter-punch. When Russia refused to lend a painting for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cezanne show in 2011, they countered by refusing to lend items for the Pushkin Museum’s Dior show. Despite Chabad’s promise not to seize cultural artifacts on loan to museums or libraries in satisfaction of the court order, the Russian government and cultural institutions continue to express unwillingness to lend to American institutions. Cultural interchange for some years has been a victim of the Chabad lawsuit.
Now, according to Art News, the Russian news agency Pravda reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry is recommending two agencies to sue the Library of Congress in retaliation for the $50,000/day fine levied in the Chabad suit. The fine is clearly not enforceable, and neither is Chabad’s judgment from the D.C. District Court. But the Russians clearly feel the need to reciprocate. So they have uncovered an interlibrary loan of 7 books made from the Russian State Library to the Library of Congress on behalf of Chabad in 1994. The books were never returned, and Russia is suing the Library of Congress as the library of record.
Tip of the OOTJ had to my terrific colleague Terry Martin, who passed along this story. The image at the top is just one of several from a blog post about the Lubavitch Library of materials that ARE here in the NY collection, and shows the sort of handwritten details that mean a lot to those who would study the items left behind in Russia. See the interesting blog post at Crown Heights Info, Chabad News http://crownheights.info/chabad-news/7438/lubavitch-library-exhibit-reveals-new-facts-about-rebbe/ July 18, 2007.