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How do you create your own nation?

We ask Romas Lileikis, the president of Užupis, a mini-republic in Vilnius where artists rule and cats have constitutional rights

How do you create your own nation?

Text by Claire Martin / Photo Tim E White

For a republic with its own secret service, the constitution of Užupis is a touch fuzzy: its 41 rules include “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”, “People have the right to have no rights”, and “A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need”.

Since its founding on 1 April 1997, the Republic of Užupis has had its own president, cabinet, currency, flag, national anthem and an army of 11 men. Though if it were invaded, you wouldn’t fancy their chances – there are only 7,000 inhabitants in this bohemian neighbourhood, across the Vilnia river from the centre of Vilnius (“Užupis” literally means “other side of the river”), and 1,000 of them are artists. Vilnius, which tore down a statue of Lenin and replaced it with one of Frank Zappa, is already heavy on quirk – and Užupis is its Montmartre or Freetown Christiania.  

It wasn’t always thus. “When we first came here, the main street was called the Street of Death,” says Užupis’ President Romas Lileikis, a poet, musician and film director who was one of the first wave of artists to move into the area’s beautiful, dilapidated buildings after Lithuania became independent in 1991 (artistic freedom had been banned under communist rule). “But when the artists moved in, it ceased to be a no-go area, and started to become a place of inspiration and free thought.”

Lileikis came up with the idea of an independent republic as a way of celebrating togetherness, and is quietly proud of what he’s achieved. “When we asked permission from the municipality for our independence there was a long silence,” he remembers. “And then finally they wrote one thing: ‘You are allowed to organise a humouristic event in which the Užupis Republic declares independence.’ Then we had another letter saying we were allowed to celebrate the anniversary of our independence. That was the moment it became real.”

So, each year, Užupis celebrates its birthday. There’s beer, dancing and a procession to the statue of the archangel Gabriel blowing a trumpet, which symbolises the revival of artistic freedom in eastern Europe. But, isn’t it April Fool’s Day? “Nobody is afraid of 1 April,” shrugs Lileikis, “so it seemed like a good day to say something serious.”

The constitution Lileikis wrote is similarly playful. Just as it decrees people have the right to be happy, they also have the right to be unhappy. “It is based on paradox,” explains Lileikis. “It is connected and also contradictory, but it is only against one thing: the aggression that comes from inside of us.”

Užupis may not be holding international summits any time soon, but it has hosted everyone from the Dalai Lama to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederick. The Dalai Lama is an honorary citizen alongside the likes of Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian émigré who has been called “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema”.

Saulius Pilinkus, Lithuania’s former chief of security, is now head of Užupis’ secret service. “Užupis is like a film,” he says of the republic. “Romas Lileikis is the director and we are all the actors.”


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