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.

The Uzupis constitution on the wall

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.

A party in progress

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.

The Three Muses statue at the National Drama Theatre in Vilnius

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).

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.

Close