The phrase, “You like Russia? You should visit Clinton, in Massachusetts.” is high on a list of things I never thought I’d hear at the Women in Travel Summit in Boston, but it happened, so I went.
Included in the price of purchasing my conference ticket was the chance to visit the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton. It was definitely the curveball stop in our otherwise conventional list of “Johnny Appleseed Country” type visits on our regional tour, but it ended up being my favourite place because of its interesting history and complete randomness.
An interesting history
So how did this Museum of Russian icons end up in small town Massachusetts? The answer — an eccentric millionaire: Gordon B. Lankton.
Lankton built his fortune as CEO of Nypro, Inc., a plastics company. Before Nypro he was a plastics engineer and a soldier. He was an avid traveller, and even wrote a memoir about the motorcycle trip he took around the world in 1956 and 1957 after being stationed in Germany. He wanted to visit Russia for a long time but because of his soldier status he was unable to enter Russia during the Cold War.
Once the war ended he went to Russia. With the help of a Russian-speaking tour guide he toured local markets and bazaars and acquired his first icon at a flea market in the Izmaylovo District in Russia
This was where his obsession with Russian icons began.
Now Lankton travels to Russia and buys up all the icons he can find. He’s been doing it for the past thirty years. He built the museum to house his collection and it currently has over 700 Russian icons and related artifacts. As a result, he has the largest collection of Russian icons in North America.
Their oldest icon is from 1450 and they have an old cross from the 5th century.
An icon is a religious painting done by the Russian Orthodox Christians. The tradition can be traced back to AD988 in Russia (called Kievan Rus at the time). Icons depict saints, so Russian Orthodox Christians kept them in their homes and churches for luck and prayed to them. Smaller icons were carried by soldiers into battle or by travellers as a good luck charm. They’re often made of wood painted with egg tempura.
Early Orthodox Christians in Russia thought of icons as portals to the divine. I’ve been told that if hordes were invading a village, the resident holy man would run towards the invading horde with an icon raised for protection.
There is also a specific way to portray each Saint and there are over 450 ways to paint the Virgin Mary.
That sounds like a song lyric, doesn’t it?
Russian tea room
Although it was awe-inspiring to be in the presence of ancient icons, I was equally excited when we made our way to the tea room in the basement. This cozy space featured lots of Kusmi Teas (also available in the gift shop) and various Russian snacks.
Although they keep a Keurig which provides the hot water for day-to-day guests like myself, they had a whole back wall full of beautiful samovars.
Samovars are the traditional water heating tools for tea in Russia, Turkey and parts of the Middle East. They’re an old tradition, but not as old as the icons upstairs — the first known samovar was manufactured in 1717. “One is electric,” our tour guide grins, “but we take the plug out when it’s on display.”
If you visit on an average day you’ll likely get your water from the Keurig in the room, but the museum does host a Russian tea ceremony once a month.
I had Kusmi’s Prince Wladimir, an earl grey base blended with vanilla and spices. It was pretty good for a bagged tea and appropriately Russian, but I wish we’d gotten to use the samovars.
Still, for a tea junkie like me it was nice just to see their collection of samovars had a place among the ancient icons in this strangely old yet futuristic building.
If you go, entrance is $10 for adults and $5 for students. See if you can catch the Russian tea ceremony. If tea and icons aren’t you’re fancy, the building’s energy-efficient design and LED lighting scheme are impressive nonetheless.