One of London’s oldest law firms, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has pulled out of representing Russia’s state-backed development bank, VEB.RF, in a legal battle between the Russian bank and a Hasidic Jewish group, over a collection of thousands of sacred Jewish texts that fell into the hands of the Soviet Union during the Bolshevik revolution.
Freshfields this week asked a US Court to delay proceedings against Russian bank VEB.RF, while the bank seeks out new lawyers, after the law firm set out on the process to drop the bank as a client.
The law firm’s decision to cut its links to VEB.RF comes after the New York based Chabad movement sued the Russian bank in 2004, seeking to reclaim the thousands of sacred Jewish books and texts that make up the Schneerson Collection.
Freshfields’ decision to sever its links with its existing client, in the middle of a case, comes after the UK slapped sanctions on the Russian development bank in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Freshfields request for the court to delay proceedings comes as the Magic Circle law firm will be forced to obtain a court order to cut its ties with both VTB and VEB.RF, due to the fact that law firms are not generally allowed to withdraw from representing clients whilst cases are still ongoing.
The City of London law firm yesterday said it would also stop working for Russia’s state-owned VTB Bank, in a case over VTB’s role in Mozambique’s Tunabond scandal.
The law firm’s withdrawal comes after the Chabad movement sued Russia in 2004 in a bid to reclaim the Schneerson Collection of sacred Jewish texts, which has now been held in Moscow for more than a century.
The Schneerson Collection, which includes thousands of sacred books, letters, and manuscripts from the founders of the Chabad movement, has been in the hands of the Russian government since the start of the First World War, when Chabad leader Rabbi Shalom Schneerson put the books in storage in Moscow for safekeeping, with a view to retrieving them after the war was over.
After the Bolsheviks took control of Russia in 1917, the texts were handed over to Russia’s State Library, which later refused to hand the collection back to the Chabad movement following the Rabbi’s death in 1920.
The Russian government also took control of some of the texts after Soviet troops seized them from Nazi researchers in the Second World War.
In 2010, a US court ruled in favour of the Chabad movement and ordered Russia to hand over the documents. Russia has however refused to hand over the texts and claims they are a national treasure.
Founded in the small town of Lubavitch in the Russian Empire in 1775, the Chabad movement is now based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the main leadership emigrated to the US in the first half of the 20th Century.
The Orthodox Jewish movement now has strong links to both the US and Russia and has received funding from high profile donors, including US billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.