Monday, 9 August 2010

Washington Judge Challenges Preservation of Historical Material in (Foreign) State Collections

We have seen that the no-questions-asked "internationalist" antiquities trade questions the exercise of (foreign) states of responsibility for cultural property found in their territory. Instead they want the distribution of such material to be determined purely by market forces, in other words, they should be free to buy and sell such material untramelled by any cultural property or antiquity protection laws.

The no-questions-asked-trade lobby will therefor no doubt be rejoicing in a verdict delivered in Washington last week discussed on MSN (Maayana Miskin, "US to Russia: Give Back Jewish Books", Israel National News 6th August 2010).
Russia's refusal to release thousands of religious books and documents to the Jewish community is discriminatory, a United States federal judge has ruled. Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington Royce Lamberth said the religious materials are in the possession of the Russian state library and military archive “unlawfully”. Many of the documents were confiscated during the Bolshevik revolution. Another 25,000 pages of the writers of Jewish leaders were seized by the Nazis and later retrieved by the Russian army, which claimed the papers as state property and refused to return them to the Jewish community. [The] Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the Chabad-Lubavich community, an orthodox Jewish group, has filed suit to have the documents returned. Under US law, a foreign nation may be charged in America in cases where property was stolen in violation of international law. Many of the books and papers held in Russia were written by the Chabad movement's leaders.
Well, the obvious first thought on reading this is, just who do the Americans think they are dictating to foreign governments like this? The second is what "international laws" were in fact violated; none of the accounts (mostly in the Jewish press and blogs) of the "victory" specify this. This verdict cuts right to the core of the debate on whether states and governments control and have a responsibility for the cultural property found on their territory, or whether individuals and individual groups have a "right" to it which overrides that. This is a constant theme of these debates with antiquity dealers over cultural property and "collectors' rights", the split between so-called "internationalism" and their accustations of the "nationalism" of governments caring for their nation's cultural heritage.

Let us get this straight. The Agudas Chassidei Chabad (Association of Chabad Chassidim)of the Lubavitch Chabad is a Chassidic group (until 1994 led by Menachem Mendel Schneerson regarded by some of its members as the Messiah). The group is now based in the US, though originated in Russia in the town of Lubavitch just to the east of Smolensk (just by the Belorussian border in fact). The New York centre already has an extensive library of works removed at various times in the past from Russia (and Latvia and Poland), the history of which can be found online here. It will be seen that a large part of the group's collections was already removed from Russia with government permission. The books to which the article refers seem to be those deposited in Moscow warehouses and nationalised under Lenin and deposited in Moscow Public Library. It is the maintenance of this archive in public collections that is declared "illegal"?

It is not clear just how much the U.S. District Court in Washington knows of recent Russian history. One of the lawyers representing the Chassidic group, Attorney Seth Gerber, is quoted as saying: “This victory is a triumph for justice for the Jewish people and others who abhor the [...] immoral suppression of religious faith by the current Russian government”. Eh? Could Mr Gerber think that the Soviet Union still exists? What on earth is he talking about?

In recent years there has been an important revival of interest in Jewish studies right across eastern Europe, including Russia, where we see in Moscow State University a new institute being created for the purpose. The Avi Chai organization has similar aims. The New York based Jewish Theological Seminary runs a course in Moscow, and its "numerous alumni who have gone on to play key roles in the revival of Jewish life in Russia since the fall of the USSR as educators, journalists, professors, and directors of Jewish institutions". This is quite a significant webpage in this context for the photo I reproduce: "Students study in the Judaica library in Moscow". Is this the library the Washington court wants to dismember and haul part of overseas? Should not interested students and scholars in Russia be able to study the history and heritage of the Lubavitch Jews in the land where those Jews lived? Or does one group of US Jews want for some reason to have a monopoly in that? Should the study of Jewish life, culture, thought and religion and the protection of its historical monuments and physical cultural heritage be encouraged or discouraged in Russia?

More to the point, to now rule that the appropriation of cultural property by the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the October revolution is "unlawful" puts many US collections in a rather awkward situation. The Bolsheviks raised money for the civil war by selling precious items they had confiscated from the Tsar's family, the nobles and the rich landowners. In a programme publicised as "loot the looters" and "turn gold into bread", the Bolsheviks set up a state committee, called Gokhran, in 1920 to organize confiscations, to gain state control over a considerable part of Russia's wealth and cultural heritage. This has recently been described in Sean McMeekin 's book, the "History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks" (Yale University Press).
"... armed detachments fanned out across Russia ... breaking open safe deposit boxes in 'nationalized' banks, withdrawing hundreds of millions of tsarist rubles from other people's saving accounts, looting landed estates, churches and monasteries, and prying precious stones and other valuables from the bloodied bodies of anyone who dared resist Bolshevik confiscation".
Illegal? Well, it was done in accordance with the decrees the Bolsheviks themselves established between 1917 and 1922. Western industrialists did not really bother too much where the gold bullion (recast for the Bolsheviks in Sweden) came from. Not many questions were asked here it seems. Beers for example bought £1 million worth of diamonds for £365,000, one wonders whether among them were those taken from the bodies of the royal family executed in Yekaterinburg. Whether or not this was the case, these were blood diamonds anyway. Greedy western capitalists...
were directly responsible for funding the Red Terror and the Bolshevik's war against the peasants. Adapting Lenin's phrase, Western capitalists sold the Bolsheviks the rope not with which to hang them, but to hang millions of Russians.
Collections in the United States were a direct beneficiary of this looting and laundering of Russia's national patrimony. Right-wing American millionaires were the biggest buyers of the treasures prised from the hands of murdered Russian nobles: Armand Hammer's collection for example (now in UCLA) and even more significantly Andrew Mellon's haul of Old Masters from Russian collections bought from the Bolsheviks for a reported $6.6 million which became the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. [There is a succinct Wikipedia summary of these sales here.] See also Mark Durney's post: Russian Nationalization of Art - Bolsheviks! on the issue of the precise origins of a painting now in Yale, but adding some of the background.

In the light of this recent verdict, we should also note that the material that found its way across the Atlantic from these sales by the Bolsheviks of their looted Russian cultural property is not restricted to artworks. Andrei Pliguzov and Abby Smith ('The Bolsheviks in Business The Russian Book Trade After the Revolution') describe how today a large part of the private library of the Romanov family is now housed in the Library of Congress's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and other looted items ended up in Harvard University, New York Public Library, Columbia University and others. The law library of the Library of Congress has a large collection rare seventeenth and eighteenth century Russian legal materials which "has richly benefited the study of Russia in America".

If now the US courts have indeed decided that the appropriation of this material by the Bolsheviks from private owners in accordance with their own decrees was illegal, then the way is open for the Russian people and those families to claim all that material bought by American collectors from the Bolsheviks back. In the light of this ruling, this material had too been illegally acquired (indeed, also on the basis of "discrimination"). If the Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the Chabad-Lubavich community can claim back the books left behind in Russia by former members and leaders of the group, then the Library of Congress material should go back to Russia on the basis of the same judgement, as well as all those paintings bought by Mellon and the others in 1930-31, doing deals which financed the establishment of totalitarian rule in Russia and the creation of the Soviet Union. If Washington insists on upholding the verdict of its own courts, this material too was illegally acquired by the same "international laws".

How interesting it is that this verdict from a Washington court in favour of the "internationalists" has not yet been "observed" by Washington lawyer Peter Tompa's blog (he is currently more excited by the fact that an archaeologist was insulted in a German court).
Vignette: students at work in a library of Judaism in Moscow, and Sean McMeekin 's book, the "History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks" (Yale University Press).

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