Russia and US continue to discuss cultural stand-off

The Art Newspaper 7 May 2012
By Sophia Kishkovsky.

Senior officials aim to lift loans suspension after dispute over sacred Jewish books

Mikhail Shvydkoy, the Kremlin’s international cultural envoy and Tara Sonenshine, the US’s new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, have discussed the cultural stalemate between Russia and the US over sacred Jewish books. Russian state television has reported that Shvydkoy said that he and Sonenshine agreed in April that they “must reach an intergovernmental agreement as quickly as possible that would guarantee the security of Russian cultural treasures exhibited in the US”.

Shvydkoy, who was at the US state department to discuss cultural, educational, sports and media exchanges between the two countries, said that he and Sonenshine had “discussed separately those difficulties that exist in Russian-American relations as a result of the famous suit over the Schneerson collection”, according to the Rossiya television channel.

Russia suspended exchanges following a 2010 court ruling due to a prolonged legal wrangling over a collection of books and religious documents sacred to the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community. As The Art Newspaper reported earlier this month, talks had broken down and Chabad has moved to have Russia fined by the US federal court. Major US museums have confirmed that they are not seeking loans from Russian museums while the impasse continues. “We are discussing with our Russian counterparts ways to ensure that valuable cultural exchanges between Russian and American institutions may resume,” a US state department official told The Art Newspaper. “Those discussions are ongoing.”

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. Chabad, which has its worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, has been pursuing the return of the Schneerson library and archive for decades. In 1991, a Moscow court ruled that the library should be returned to Chabad, but the order was withdrawn after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian authorities say that they respect the sacred significance of the library to Chabad, but that the books and documents are now the cultural property of Russia, according to Russian law.

A ruling by a United States District Court in Washington DC in July 2010, ordering Russia to return all the Schneerson documents, led Russia to suspend museum loans for fear that works might be seized while in America. But the US continues to promise Russia that there is no risk to its works of art. “We have attempted to reassure Russian authorities that, under the 46-year-old US statute granting immunity from judicial interference for works of art on loan from foreign countries for temporary exhibit in the United States, all such artwork—including Russian art—has been safely returned,” the state department official told The Art Newspaper.

Shvydkoy said Russia’s goal is to work out a direct agreement between the two countries similar to the “immunity from seizure” laws quickly established by the UK ahead of the “From Russia” exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2008. Last year, the Czech Republic passed a similar amendment to its national heritage law so that no claims could be made against any works from the Kremlin Museums brought to Prague for exhibitions.

Russian officials, including Shvydkoy, have said that the large and active Jewish community in Moscow, which has recovered after decades of oppression, is grounds enough for the Schneerson books and documents to stay in the Russian capital. Shvydkoy says he has proposed to Berel Lazar, the Lubavitcher who is Russia’s chief rabbi, that the books be lent permanently to the Moscow Chabad’s cultural centre.

For now, they remain accessible to scholars, and Chabad if they wish to visit and pray, 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.

Alexander Visly, the state library’s director general, told The Art Newspaper that the books are not valuable to the library as books but “are [valuable] to Hasids as the heritage of their founder”.

The state library has multiple copies of many books from the Schneerson library in its collection, and has donated some to the Jewish community, he says. But he insists that the fate of the Schneerson Library cannot be decided by the state library or any individual. “Even if the President of the Russian Federation were to say, ‘Give the books back’, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Visly says. “I would need a special law to be passed by the State Duma [the lower house of the Russian parliament].”

At Chabad’s Moscow headquarters, Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, is wary of discussing the standoff, but says that the books and archive are the property and prerogative of the Brooklyn-based Chabad. Boroda’s big current project is the Museum of Jewish History and Centre of Tolerance, which is being designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the New York architectural firm. It will open on 4 November, the national holiday for the Day of People’s Unity in Russia and will be housed in the constructivist former bus depot on the federation’s grounds that until recently housed Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. The Garage, which transformed Moscow’s art scene when it opened in 2008, ended its tenure there with a Marina Abramovic retrospective and has moved to Gorky Park. Zhukova’s partner, billionaire Roman Abramovich, chairs the Jewish federation’s board of trustees.

Boroda says the $45m museum will be the “first such museum in the world”, based not on “artefacts, but on interactive panels [and] various sophisticated media technologies” that will “tell the story from the creation of the world to our time”. While it occasionally shocked its Jewish neighbours, the Garage certainly put the location on the map. “We can’t lower the bar,” says Boroda. “We should raise it even higher.”

Meanwhile, as exchanges are yet to resume, Shvydkoy has helped to organise an exhibition, beginning in May at New York’s ABA Gallery, of 18th to 20th-century Russian art, drawn from American and European private collections, including those of dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov and violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov. “It’s to remind our colleagues that Russian art exists,” said Shvydkoy. “Because a serious vacuum has developed.”
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