Russia Fined $44 Million for Refusing to Hand Over Jewish Books
In a decision likely to prolong a Russian ban on lending art to American museums, a federal judge on Thursdayordered Russia to pay a fine of $43.7 million for refusing to return a collection of Jewish books and documents to the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch group.
The dispute, long a source of diplomatic tension between the United States and Russia, centers on a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents known as the Schneerson Library. The material was amassed by the Chabad movement in the two centuries before World War II, and kept since then in Russia.
For years, the Chabad organization, which is now based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has been trying to regain possession of the library from Russia, arguing that Soviet authorities held it illegally after the war.
In response, the Kremlin in 2011 barred state-run museums, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, from lending works to American museums, saying it fears they could be seized as part of the court case. American officials have said that such art seizures are forbidden by law and Chabad has forsworn any such effort, but the prohibition on lending remains in place.
The legal dispute dates back more than a decade. In 2010, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Russian government to hand over all Schneerson collection documents that were being held at the Russian State Library and in the Russian State Military Archives.
The Russians have refused, calling the texts state property and a “treasure of the Russian people.”
In 2013, over the objections of the State Department, the judge fined Russia $50,000 a day for not complying with his order. The State Department had argued that, among other things, such a decision risked inflaming Russian-American relations.
On Thursday, Judge Lamberth again rejected the administration’s objections and ordered that Russia pay the $43 million in penalties accrued so far.
“There is simply no evidence on the record that this case has any impact on relations between the United States and Russia outside of this case,” he said.
Alluding to the heightened tensions between the two countries over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and other issues, the judge said, “Given the United States’ current sanctions against Russia and Russian interests based upon various geopolitical events, the court is unpersuaded by such a vague concern in this case.”
He noted the Russian government’s response, or lack of it, in the decade since the Chabad organization made its legal claim, including “the bellicose statements of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and tit-for-tat litigation instituted in Russian courts.”
In 2013, Mr. Putin proposed transferring the works to a new Jewish center in Moscow, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, but Chabad said it believed only a small number had been moved there.
The State Department did not return a request for comment on Friday.
Steven Lieberman, a lawyer representing the Chabad organization who has also represented The New York Times as outside counsel, said the organization is looking to identify Russian assets other than art to seize to put pressure on the Russian government.
“It is doing this so that it has a tool, a mechanism of pressure to induce the Russians to give back the sacred books,” he said.