Uzupis: In Search of a State — Page 2
Story and photos by Tom Coote



The Independent Micronation

The Republic of Uzupis has a government with several ministers, a national anthem, its own local currency, four official flags (one for each season), an official Coat of Arms, and an embassy in Moscow. It also used to have 12-strong army until it was disbanded as the use of force of any kind contradicts the republic's opposition to aggression. The 41 article Constitution of Uzupis, proudly printed out in various languages along a back street wall, states that "everyone may be independent," "everyone is responsible for their freedom" and "everyone has the right to have no rights." It also makes clear that "a dog has the right to be a dog" and that "everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation." The last letter of the thirteenth article is missing from both the version that is eternally etched into the city's walls and from the printed copy that tourists can buy from the riverside Uzupis Cafe (it has "nee" instead of "need"). I wasn't sure if this was a deliberate test, to see of anybody was paying attention, or simply ideological carelessness (according to article four of the constitution "everyone has the right to make mistakes").

Uzupis Flags

Romas Lileikis, the internationally known poet, musician and artist, who also happens to be the President of Uzupis, stated in a Rolling Stone interview that:

"We're trying to energize a community by asserting our independence. It's very different from the independence gained in '91, but we're trying to foster the same community spirit so that people can make things happen for themselves. That's a trait they lost through seventy years of oppression."

Admittedly, the ideas and ideals that take root amongst artistic and intellectual communities can go on to shape the world, and a spirit of intellectual playfulness can help to shed reality in a different light, but to Jack, a returning descendent of Jewish survivors, Uzupis appeared little different to any other upwardly mobile district of Vilnius. While I continued to wander around the back streets of Uzupis, in search of something, although I'm not sure what, Jack returned across the padlock adorned bridge, to attend a service at his synagogue in the Old Town.

Another Jewish Diaspora

When Jack had first called out to me from a back street in the Old Town, I had ignored him. I had been casually introduced to him by our mutual roommate at the hostel but hadn't seen his face properly from my bottom bunk. All I saw in the street was a scruffy figure waving his arms around and calling out in my direction. I thought he was probably drunk or after money. Only when he came closer did I realize my mistake and apologize. He didn't seem offended. Apparently it happened all the time.

Uzupis Town

Jack's reasons for coming to stay in Vilnius didn't seem that clear to even him. Something had clearly driven him to seek out his Jewish roots in "the Jerusalem of the North" as a third generation member of yet another Jewish Diaspora. He had already spent a year in Israel but this was something different. This was the land where his Grandmother's side of the family had lived for generations. As we walked along the cobbled streets, and past the numerous beautifully restored medieval churches of Vilnius, Jack told me of how he had been welcomed at the nearby synagogue, with offers of help with finding work and accommodation. The work on offer was unglamorous and poorly paid, and the accommodation options were basic, but he seemed glad just to be here and to be alive. As we carried on up the hill beyond Uzupis, he pointed out some grey Soviet style tower blocks where he was thinking of renting a room. Outside of the scenically restored tourist centre of the Old Town, the cost of living still seemed ridiculously cheap.

Uzupis Back Streets

Later, at the hostel, Jack had arranged to meet up with a guy called Matt from the synagogue, who had offered to help him. When he turned up on his bicycle, Matt turned out to be tall, blonde and distinctly Aryan in appearance. He shook my hand in a firm, friendly manner, and met my gaze squarely, in a manner rarely found outside of evangelists or salesmen. As I left them to it, while trying to figure out where next to go, I couldn't help overhearing an edge of glee in Matt's voice as he presented Jack with a folder of old black and white photos of Vilnius' former Jewish residents: "Those ones died; they were sent to the concentration camps; their whole family were exterminated." The more photos of dead Jewish people that he presented to Jack, the more excited he became. "I am very interested in Jewish culture" he said, "I used to be a member of a neo-Nazi group but those were difficult times for me and I was an alcoholic." Jack nodded and thanked him for coming over. Eventually he went away.



Tom Coote's first travel book Tearing up the Silk Road was published by Garnet Publishing in 2012. His second book book Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves: West Africa and the End of Days was published via Wicked World Magazine in 2013. He has traveled independently in more than 120 countries, regularly updating his web site at www.tomcoote.net.


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Related Features:
Tipsy in Transnistria — Trying to Stay Sober in Nowhereland by Rory MacLean
Israel is in my Passport, but is it in Me? by Emily Matchar
Bouncing Back From Terror in Budapest by Tim Leffel
Make Hummus, Not Walls by Larry Zuckerman


See other Europe travel stories from the archives


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Tearing up the Silk Road

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Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves

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