Residents say that if you stare into the eyes of the Užupis Mermaid as you cross the bridge into the tiny, self-declared Republic of Užupis from the surrounding Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, you’ll never want to leave. Created in 2002 by sculptor Romas Vilčiauskas, the bronze figure welcomes visitors to the tiny republic – and locals claim that it is she who lures them here from all over the globe.
Located within the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Užupis is one of the smallest republics in the world, covering less than 1 sq km. But don’t be fooled by its size – it boasts its own president, government, constitution and currency, and even has a navy consisting of three or four small boats (used mainly for ceremonial purposes). Until recently, it also had an army of around 10 men, but given the republic’s peace-loving attitude, it has been retired.
Užupis is an eclectic juxtaposition of Soviet Bloc architecture and artistic flair. Following the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, many plinths that had held statues of Soviet icons stood empty across Vilnius. In 1995, a group of local artists used one of them to erect a statue of US rock icon Frank Zappa (despite the fact he had never been there) as a symbol of freedom and a call to democracy. Two years later, on 1 April 1997, they went a step further, declaring their neighbourhood of Užupis independent from the rest of Lithuania. Although Užupis is not recognised by foreign governments as an official nation, the micro-nation has become a source of pride in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania.
Meaning ‘beyond the river’ in Lithuanian, Užupis is separated from the rest of the city by the Vilnele River. The republic celebrates its independence annually on 1 April, known locally as Užupis Day. On this day, travellers can get their passports stamped as they cross the bridge into the republic (every other day, the border is not guarded), use the local (unofficial) currency and treat themselves to the beer that flows from the water spout in the main square (yes, really).
What essentially began as a tongue-in-cheek April Fools’ Day joke for a small group of creatives is now a serious endeavour. Today, the Republic of Užupis has a constitution that has been translated into multiple languages.
Užupis’ Foreign Minister Tomas Čepaitis, one of the micro-nation’s founding fathers, explained that the republic was born from Aristotle’s philosophy that any great city should have a limited number of inhabitants. “We wanted to create our new little country based on the old thought that a good country can have no more than 5,000 citizens, because the human mind can’t remember more faces [than that],” he said. “Everybody knows everybody, so it’s hard to cheat and hard to manipulate each other.”
The republic’s flag sports what’s known as the ‘Holy Hand’: a blue hand with a hole in the middle, making it unable to accept bribes.
“The main thing is we have nothing to hide in our hands,” Užupis’ Tourism Minister Kestas Lukoskinas, who has lived in the area for 18 years, told me.
Čepaitis said he and his fellow co-founders wanted to create a place where people could disconnect from the distractions of modern life and reconnect with what’s important. “If you cross the bridge, you can become yourself. You don’t play any social role, you don’t belong to anyone, you belong to yourself. You can think about who you are and you can live without being part of that mad race that all of humanity is involved in.”
Lukoskinas agrees. “The atmosphere in Užupis is completely different,” he said. “You feel happier and more relaxed. You can go into the pub and meet the mayor of the city, or a famous basketball player or a famous artist, and everybody is just chilling. Anywhere else you go to posh bars and to posh restaurants, [and] there are restrictions, there’s a protocol, which is absent in Užupis.”
While the republic’s conception story is a light-hearted affair, the area’s history is not. During the mid-20th Century when the region was under Soviet rule, the district was derelict; a dangerous part of town for the brave or the foolish. One of neighbourhood’s main thoroughfares, Užupis Street, was once nicknamed ‘the Street of Death’, not only due to the high crime rate but also in recognition of the neighbourhood’s Jewish population, which was decimated during the Holocaust. Today, however, the winding cobbled streets feature quirky art installations and a renewed sense of life.
Once independence was secured in 1997, a constitution soon followed. The creed was penned by Čepaitis and Užupis President Romas Lileikis in just three hours one summer afternoon in 1998.
“We had just declared a republic, and then he [Lileikis] visited me because he had no hot water, which is why there is a clause about hot water,” said Čepaitis, referring to the second article of the constitution, which states that everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof. “After he had a bath, we thought we now have a republic so we need some document, so we sat and wrote it.”
If you cross the bridge, you can become yourself
The constitution’s 41 clauses encapsulate the essence of Užupis’ ideals of free thought, with points such as ‘Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation’ and ‘Everyone has the right to understand’, as well as, confusingly, ‘Everyone has the right to understand nothing’. Even the republic’s pets are mentioned, with clauses such as ‘a dog has a right to be a dog’, and ‘a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of need’.
“I wrote about the cats, because I am a cat man. [Lileikis] wrote about the dogs, because he is a dog man,” Čepaitis explained. It is a poetic balance.
The charter, printed on large mirrored rectangles, hangs along the road known locally as the Avenue of Constitutions. More than 30 of these metal plates now line the wall, with Latin being the latest language to be hung – it was blessed by the Pope himself during his visit to the Baltics in September. The Avenue of Constitutions leads to the centre of the republic, where a statue of Archangel Gabriel, ‘The Angel of Užupis’, was erected in 2002 as a symbol of growth and rebirth, his trumpet heralding a new free-thinking age for the nation.
As with most things in Užupis, the government structure and the appointment of officials is a somewhat relaxed affair, with their parliament house also functioning as the local cafe-cum-pub. A core group of about a dozen ministers oversees the running of the micro-nation, but for those who want to get involved in Užupis’ politics, being an active member of the local community is key.
“The main thing is to be recognised. You can say I’m a Minister of Soccer or a Minister of Frisbee, and that’s OK, you can be. But you need to be recognised,” Lukoskinas said, adding that he understands the attractiveness of this freestyle kind of politics.
“It releases the tension of everyday life and the diplomatic protocol. You can relax and have a pint with the prime minister or the president. [But] it’s a serious game we play,” he said with a smile.
As unusual as it sounds, it is a system that works, and has done for the past 21 years. The president has held his position for that entire time (despite jokingly admitting on the odd occasion that he would like a break), as have many of his ministers, with the group meeting most Mondays. Together they’re making political waves, actively working to build ties with other countries, albeit unofficially. Užupis even houses a park known as Tibet Square. China angrily interpreted Užupis’ decision to make the Dalai Lama an honourary citizen as political rather than cultural (the citizens of Užupis neither agree nor disagree with this statement).
The Republic of Užupis has piqued tourists’ interest since its inception in 1997. The unintended consequence is that the republic has experienced some gentrification and development, which has prompted a spike in property prices.
This mixture of dream and reality is the best I could’ve hoped for when we began all this
“Right now this is the second most expensive part of Vilnius, after Old Town. No artist could allow themselves to buy an apartment now – you’d have to be famous and rich.” Lukoskinas said.
This has caused concern for some ministers, who fear the loss of their culture and way of life as tourist numbers grow and the population swells. However, Čepaitis hopes it will help Užupis’ ideals spread further afield.
“I [am] very excited to meet people who dreamed that there was such a country in the world. This mixture of dream and reality is the best I could’ve hoped for when we began all this,” he said. “They found their country, here in reality. That’s their ultimate goal and I’m very happy.”
It is no wonder the mermaid has led them here.
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