Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope on Thursday that the dispute over a Jewish archive claimed by the United States may be “finally closed,” as he visited the rare collection in a newly opened museum in Moscow.
Russia has refused to hand over the collection of books and manuscripts, known as the Schneerson library, to the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community, which has claimed the archive. Russia argues, however, that it is part of the country's heritage.
"I hope that now with the move to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center of the Schneerson library -- which is of interest and huge value for the Jewish people, not just Russian Jews, but also Jewish people living in other countries -- this will close this problem finally," Putin said, according to the AFP news agency, without providing details or elaborating.
The Russian leader handled some of the volumes as he toured the reading room with Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and the chairman of the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities, Alexander Boroda, according to the news agency.
The collection was amassed by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson in tsarist Russia. It was split up and partially nationalized by the Soviet Union in 1918, while Schneerson was exiled and moved to the United States after fighting for Jewish rights in Russia.
The other part was taken out of Russia and ended up in Germany where it was seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II in 1945.
Russia is gradually transferring the archive from the Russian State Library to the state-of-the-art Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in November, where a reading room will make it available to the public.
Putin backed the move when he visited the museum in February, saying it was a "serious step forward to compromise with those people who want to solve this problem."
Around 4,500 volumes are expected to be housed in the museum by the end of the year.
In January, a US judge slapped a daily fine of $50,000, some 37,500 euros, on Moscow for failing to comply with a 2010 order to return the sacred texts.
The dispute has frozen cultural exchange programs and as a result, touring exhibitions from such prominent museums as the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery have bypassed the United States.
Since Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term last May, Russia and the United States have been at odds over a growing number of issues, including Iranian nuclear ambitions.
On Wednesday Putin maintained that Iran maintains the right to a “peaceful” nuclear program.
While he denounced the regime’s threats against the Jewish state as "unacceptable" he sought to justify the remarks by saying that Iran should not be "discriminated" against with demands for it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.