Russian ship turns away from S.F. over Chabad-Russia feud

A Russian sailing ship canceled a planned goodwill stop in San Francisco last week, the latest development in an ongoing legal battle between the Russian government and the U.S.-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement over a collection of historic Jewish texts.

Nearly 100 diplomats and members of the Bay Area’s Russian and Polish communities who had boarded boats to welcome the 360-foot-long Nadezhda were left waiting near Pier 27 on the morning of Oct. 21 after the vessel’s captain reportedly received orders to avoid any port in the United States. The ship had been scheduled to arrive at a buoy outside the Golden Gate at 9 a.m.

A spokesman for the Russian Consulate’s office in San Francisco told j. that local diplomats had planned to entertain the ship’s crew, and had organized a visit to Bodega Bay and Fort Ross, two areas along the Sonoma Coast with rich Russian history.

Russian Consul General Vladimir Vinokurov was taken by surprise by the cancellation, and called the situation “complicated,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Russian ship Nadezhda sails out of Sydney Harbor in 1998 to celebrate Australia Day. photo/ap/ian mainsbridge

He told the Chronicle that the last-minute change involved an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement against the Russian government concerning ownership of the Schneerson Library, a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents. The library was assembled by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement over two centuries prior to World War II, and has been held by the Soviet government since the war’s end. Most of it is currently housed at the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow.

In 1991 a Moscow court ordered the library be returned to Chabad, but the ruling was set aside after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of an independent Russian state. After Chabad leadership, based in New York, filed a suit in the United States, a federal judge ruled in favor of the organization in July 2010, ordering the historic texts be returned. Russian government officials have refused.

“We argue that this case is outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts,” Vinokurov told the Chronicle.

Vinokurov was not available to be interviewed by j.

The fallout from the case has seen the Russian government ceasing to lend artwork, cultural or historical artifacts to U.S. museums for fear such treasures might be seized in conjunction with the lawsuit. This year, exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington were affected, among other planned shows.

Experts surmise that Russian authorities believed the Nadezhda — a cultural artifact as well as a training vessel — would be vulnerable to attachment by U.S. courts. A planned stop in Honolulu was also canceled.

However, in an affidavit filed Oct. 19, Chabad promised that it would not seek “to attach any of [the Russian government’s] property in the United States or otherwise for [the next] 60 calendar days.” This was done “to facilitate” negotiations, according to the affidavit.

A Los Angeles–based lawyer for Chabad forwarded a copy of the affidavit to j., but declined to comment on the Russian ship’s refusal to dock in San Francisco.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.