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Overview

Russia endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009, but due to a lack of data, it is difficult to assess the degree to which Russia has implemented restitution laws.  There are no known laws or special mechanisms enabling the return of, or compensation for, private property or heirless property confiscated or nationalized during the Holocaust era.  In 2010, Russia enacted laws on objects of cultural value and on the transfer of nationalized religious property to religious organizations.

Despite having the requisite legal framework in place for return of religious property, restitution of such property to the Jewish community has been slow in practice and few claims have been submitted.  Gaining access to archival documents or data on potentially sensitive topics related to political persecution or repression, including the Holocaust and Jewish history, remains difficult.  While it is complicated to assess how many Jews died in the Soviet Union during World War II, given that large numbers were evacuated to or fled to the interior of the Soviet Union after 1939, local sources estimate that up to 2 to 2.5 million Jews perished, including approximately 120,000 in the territory of the present-day Russian Federation.  (Information on Holocaust victims is available at www.ushmm.org.)  The Federation of Jewish Communities estimates that about one million Jews currently live in Russia, which exceeds the most recent government census tally of 200,000.

Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property

Russia’s 2010 law “On the transfer to religious organizations of property of religious purpose, which is in the state or in municipal property” defines the procedure for transferring such property to religious organizations and allows the possibility for religious communities to claim property that was nationalized by the Soviet Union.  The law stipulates that it does not apply to museum objects and collections included in the Museum Fund of the Russian Federation or to documents of the Archival or National Library funds.  Reportedly, until this law’s enactment, there was no clear legal mechanism for returning property to religious organizations despite the Russian government’s stated policy since the fall of the Soviet Union in favor of returning such property.  According to the 2017 Immovable Property Restitution Study by the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), as of 2007, the bulk of religious property (approximately 3,500 buildings) had been returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, while a small number of buildings had been returned to Jewish communities.  The head of the Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the adoption of the 2010 law as a step toward restoring justice for the Jewish community.

While Russia has enacted the requisite legal framework to enable restitution of religious property, some Jewish communities have faced significant challenges in practice and have filed relatively few claims overall.  This is especially true in places where significant Jewish premises, monuments, and cemeteries exist but where no community remains to pursue such claims.  A representative from the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg provided one example of a case in which a local Jewish community was successful in regaining access to religious premises.  Namely, in 2011, a historic synagogue that had been nationalized by the Communists was returned to the Jewish community in Bryansk.

There is no legislation or special mechanism in the country that addresses the restitution of or compensation for private property; the same is true for heirless property.

Cemeteries in Russia are public property, and local authorities are responsible for the protection, maintenance, and security of tombstones and graves.  Despite this obligation, some Jewish cemeteries in areas lacking large or well-organized Jewish communities are not well maintained or protected from acts of vandalism.

Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art

After WW II, Soviet Trophy Brigades brought enormous numbers of artworks, library collections, and archives into the USSR, mostly to Moscow, from the Soviet-occupied areas of Germany and its allies as “compensatory restitution” for the huge losses of cultural property inflicted on Soviet territory.  These “trophy” objects included items that had been plundered from Jews and other victims of the Nazis.  Many, though not all, such items were returned to the governments of certain countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1998, Russia adopted a federal law “On the objects of cultural value transferred to the USSR as a result of the Second World War and located on the territory of the Russian Federation.”  The law stipulates “protection of the specified cultural values from plunder, prevention of their illegal export outside of the Russian Federation, as well as unlawful transfer.”  However, the law contains many exceptions under which no restitution is possible, including art that “belongs” to legal entities or museums.  In addition, the law specified that some art may stay in Russia as “partial compensation for damage caused to the cultural heritage of the Russian Federation as a result of the looting and destruction of its cultural property by Germany and its military allies.”

Russia initially expressed support for restitution of looted art and announced the return of one artwork following the issuance of the1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi‑Confiscated Art (Washington Principles).  The Russian ambassador to the United States in 1998 also made a statement supporting the return of looted art, urging “the entire world community to do everything possible to locate these cultural values and return them to the countries from which they were stolen.”  Since 1998, there has been some inventorying of looted property at Russian museums and libraries.  Some of this information is recorded in public databases, while the rest of the information remains largely inaccessible.

Despite a law passed by the Duma and signed by President Putin in 2000 in support of some of the major provisions of the Washington Principles, Russia retains Nazi-confiscated art.  The Department of State is unaware of any special, government-assisted process for identifying such works or handling claims.  Chabad of the United States has a long-running case in U.S. courts seeking recovery of the Schneersohn collection.  Some of these religious books and manuscripts were nationalized by the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, while others were first seized by the Nazis in Poland during World War II and later taken from the Nazis by the Red Army.

Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property

Much Judaica looted by the Nazis and their allies was among the vast numbers of items brought to Russia after the war.  In addition to the holdings of the Russian State Military Historical Archive in Moscow (RGVA), Judaica brought to Russia is known to include Torahs and ceremonial objects.  RGVA returned some Judaica to the governments of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Austria.  RGVA reportedly has scanned parts of the Schneersohn collection it retains but has not made the documents accessible.  Meanwhile, the Russian State Library, which houses the majority of the Schneersohn collection, has made the books available online.

Access to Archival Documents

According to the GULAG History Museum and NGOs in Russia that conduct research on the Holocaust, ease of access to archives depends on the sensitivity of the topic and the entity requesting archival materials.  Access to archival documents on sensitive topics related to political persecution or repression, including the Holocaust and Jewish history, can be particularly difficult.  Individuals and NGOs viewed by the government as being critical of the government found it difficult to obtain data from archives.

Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites

Russia was among the group of states at the United Nations that initiated the effort to establish International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The government commemorates the day on January 27 with speeches by high-ranking government officials.  In 2014, Russia enacted a law making it a criminal offense to glorify Nazism or spread information contradictory to the government’s official stance about the Soviet Union’s role in World War II.  This law plays a role in the Russian government’s effort to shape the public’s memory of the Holocaust.

Most museums in Russia dedicated to Jewish culture or to the memory of victims of the Holocaust are private.  The government, however, has created several memorial sites dedicated to the Holocaust.  The Memorial to the Jews of Pushkin was created in 1991 and is part of the Pushkin Holocaust Memorial Site honoring those who died in 1941 during the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg).  In 1992, Russia established the Holocaust Research and Educational Center, which reportedly was the first organization in post-Soviet Russia dedicated specifically to the commemoration of victims of the Holocaust.  The Jewish Museum and Center of Tolerance opened in Moscow in 2012, the result of a multimillion-dollar project supported by Jewish and non-Jewish benefactors, foundations, and local authorities.  At this museum in June 2019, President Putin opened the first-ever Moscow monument to the victims of the Holocaust.  The focus of the monument is on Jewish heroes of resistance in concentration camps and ghettos during WWII.  Later the same month, a monument honoring the victims of the Holocaust was opened in Mineralnye Vody City.

After negotiations in 2010 between the Russian government and the Jewish community, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation included the topic of the Holocaust in the history curriculum of secondary schools across the country.  Also in 2010, the Academy for Advanced Studies and Professional Retraining of Education Workers and the Holocaust Center in Moscow developed a program for leading educators and social studies teachers entitled “Lessons on the Holocaust:  A Path to Tolerance.”  It included 72 teacher training hours for 60 teachers from 10 Russian counties.

The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution

The Russian government does not provide special compensation, subsidies, or monetary assistance to Holocaust survivors.  However, pursuant to a 1999 Russian law, the Russian government does not tax compensation payments to Holocaust survivors in Russia made by foreign compensation funds.  The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany supports Holocaust survivors in Russia.

Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report: Russia
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