Russia, U.S. Fight Over Stolen Jewish Books And Manuscripts

Moscow - Russia on Thursday harshly criticized a U.S. court ruling fining it $50,000 a day for holding onto tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts stolen from Jews during the Russian revolution and World War II.

Russia's State Library and the Russian military archive have refused to give up the books, some hundreds of years old, even after a U.S. court ruled that the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch group is the rightful owner. The country says the books are part of its national heritage.

Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court ruled Wednesday that Russia should pay the fine until it complies with his 2010 order to return the collection to the Jewish group.

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday called the ruling "an absolutely unlawful and provocative decision" and threatened a tough response if U.S authorities try to seize Russian property in an attempt to get the fine.

There are two collections at issue: 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago; and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II, then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive.

Efforts to get the materials returned date back decades, involving presidential administrations and members of Congress of both parties. Mikhail Shvydkoi, a culture adviser to President Vladimir Putin, insisted that Moscow and Washington reached a compromise in the 1990s when Russia pledged to provide public access to the documents.

"Russia made good on all of its promises regarding this issue," he said, adding that the Russian State Library built a special prayer room inside the library to accommodate Jewish pilgrims who come to study the manuscripts.

Following Lamberth's 2010 ruling, Russia completely halted the loan of its art treasures for exhibit in the United States, for fear that they would be seized and held hostage in the court battle.