Vilnius, Lithuania | In the Republic of Užupis

This self-declared independent republic promises easy-to-get passports, a quixotic constitution, and a hopeful worldview
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First Published: Sat, Jul 20 2013. 12 10 AM IST
The statue of the Angel of Užupis. Photographs: Abhijit Dutta
The statue of the Angel of Užupis. Photographs: Abhijit Dutta
Part charade, part philosophy, part bohemian rhapsody, the Republic of Užupis is Lithuanian capital Vilnius’ answer to Paris’ Montmartre, and Copenhagen’s Christiania. A self-proclaimed independent republic, Užupis lies just outside the walls of Vilnius’ historic city centre, the Old Town, with only the Vilnele river and a small footbridge strung with rusting love locks separating its good-humoured idealism from the city it seceded from 15 years ago.
It is a short separation, but on this side of the Vilnele you can feel the distance from the touristy crowds that throng Old Town’s picturesque sights—here a handsome town square, there a neoclassical cathedral, Gothic sculptures behind you, a row of Baroque buildings when you turn this way. In contrast, Užupis comprises mostly rundown streets, crumbling walls, and dilapidated buildings.
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The Uzupis constitution on the wall
The story goes that with Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the privatization of state-owned assets, housing was neither guaranteed nor affordable. As rents skyrocketed, especially after Vilnius’ Old Town became a Unesco World Heritage Site, penniless artists, dreamers and poets came over to Užupis, then an impoverished little suburb that had received none of the largesse washing over new Lithuania. Their talents slowly transformed a sleepy, almost rural Užupis into a space of great vitality, creativity and colour, attracting in turn more free spirits and creative sorts to find refuge here.
This makeover, however, did little to lift Užupis out of its municipal neglect. So, on one fateful December day in 1997, the residents of Užupis, feeling disgruntled about the fact that the city authorities had never made them a Christmas tree, took matters into their own hands and got a tree for Užupis. This was indeed a Christmas tree of the people, by the people, for the people.
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A party in progress
Algimantas Lekevicius, the director of Užupis Television (and a champion pipe smoker), who tells me this story, gets nostalgic as we near its climax. “We got the tree, we made decorations on it, and we celebrated Christmas. It was the best time, we liked it. The next year, in 1998, on the 1st of April—it’s a good date—we decided to begin Užupis republic and we announced our independence with this declaration: ‘Vilnius and Lithuania look to Užupis as others look to their colonies, they make everything only in Vilnius and nothing in Užupis, so we announce Užupis an independent republic’.”
Everything else followed: a constitution of the Republic of Užupis, an elected president and foreign minister, official flags (one for each season), a national emblem, an anthem, a list of public holidays, and even a currency that is good for a few beers at the Užupis café on certain days of the year. Of these, the constitution is really the soul of this grand conception, seamlessly blending innocent tomfoolery with a rather profound worldview. Its 41 articles, which enshrine such rights as ‘‘Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance” and “No one has the right to make another person guilty”, is a work of Dadaist brilliance.
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The Three Muses statue at the National Drama Theatre in Vilnius
Such romantic idiosyncrasy is typical of all state matters in Užupis. If anyone, anywhere, would like to have an Užupian passport, all they have to do is to make one. Užupis will accept little pocket mirrors as identity cards. The state emblem—an outline of a hand with a neat hole in the centre of the palm—is meant to tell you that you can choose to like or not like Užupis, but you can most definitely not own or possess it. If you would like an appointment as an ambassador of the Republic of Užupis to anywhere you please, you just have to come to Užupis café, drink unpasteurized beer (a local favourite), and be sworn in.
It is impossible to not see in these quixotic tendencies a deeply philosophical commentary on the “real” world we live in. Its three most important articles—Do not defeat; Do not fight back; Do not Surrender—are a perfect synthesis of a state’s vow of pacifist nationalism. When I asked Tomas Cepaitis, a writer of librettos who moonlights as the foreign minister of Užupis and looks like a retired Santa Claus, about what the Užupis position was on all the big wars and conflicts of the world, he offered a most sensible perspective. With big sad eyes swimming with drink, he said: “In Užupis, we believe that our inner problems are bigger than any world problem. If you love a girl and the girl doesn’t love you back, that is a bigger problem than any world problem about border or religion” (world leaders, please take note).
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Even the more frivolous-sounding declarations, such as “Every dog has a right to be a dog”, are an incredibly progressive view of animal rights—and this was recognized by US ambassador to Lithuania John Tefft, who spoke at an Užupis state event in 2002 with his dog Louie in his lap. In fact, a growing tribe of “real” politicians have begun to recognize the powerful symbolism of Užupian ideals, some even making an attempt to appropriate it. This year, in May, when the Užupis constitution was translated into Estonian and accorded a place on the wall, Lithuanian President Dalia Grysbauskaite insisted on joining President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia and Užupis president Romas Lileikis to commemorate the event and deliver a gushing speech.
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Užupis, at its core, is really a commune for artists, a creative space for experimentation with different forms of art and media. There are studios and gallerias, an art incubator, a library, even residential spaces for artists to gather, collaborate, live and work. Almost every day, there are open-house performances, today a reading by a Russian poet, tomorrow an exhibition by a Lithuanian photographer, next week something about pottery. Its politics is liberal, pro-freedom and pro-rights (there is even a Tibet Square), and it feels a world away from the Catholic conservatism that marks the rest of Lithuania. But like most bohemian spaces, Užupis is constantly at risk of becoming too fashionable. Already, several of the city’s who’s who have acquired property in Užupis, including the mayor of Vilnius, underlining the suburb’s gradual transformation from a squatter’s colony to a chichi enclave. But the spirit of Užupis survives for now, and everyone plays along. The mayor, when in Užupis, bears the title of “An Ordinary Citizen”, and jokes that the only reason Užupis has sent him to Vilnius is to occupy the residents’ minds.
You may think of Užupis as merely cute, but in these choleric times when nations and nationalism cause so much grief, this playfulness offers a rare escape. Sitting by the grassy banks of the Vilnele, surrounded by good-natured pretensions and cheeky declarations, it is possible to reflect upon the state of the republic in our own countries, and the freedoms, or their lack, in our own minds.
“Užupis” simply means “on the other side of the river”, but if you do cross over you might find that you have travelled much farther than the map tells you.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 20 2013. 12 10 AM IST