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

Surrounded by Lithuania's capital city, Vilnius, the Independent Republic Of Uzupis remains a sanctuary for arty libertarian intellectuals and their Jewish heritage.

Uzupis travel

"Are you British Intelligence?" he asked, as I stepped into Vilnius's KGB headquarters and prison. "I am former KGB."

This was entirely possible. He looked to be around fifty years old and it was all still operational, torture chambers and all, up until 1991. Many of the Lithuanians who suffered both under the KGB, and who aided in their tyranny, would still be living and working in the vicinity today.

"Only joking" he said. "Or am I?" he added, with perfect comic timing. I am guessing that this was his favorite joke, and that he had spent many hours perfecting its delivery. He ran guided tours of what is now the Museum of Genocide Victims, escorting tourists around the former prison cells, interrogation rooms, and execution zones of the former KGB headquarters. I opted for the cheaper option of an MP3 player with slightly ropey headphones. He didn't seem too bothered.

The KGB Headquarters

Having descended the narrow, winding stairway into the fluorescent tube lit basement, I found myself passing through a series of grim cells, some little bigger than wardrobes. Peering through a tiny, shuttered window in one of the heavy metal doors, I could make out a sloping sunken blue floor with a small concrete island poking up from its center: the small pool would be filled with freezing water and prisoners forced to stand upon its slippery elevation until they eventually collapsed through exhaustion. Further down the corridor was the execution room.

Some of the larger cells had been turned into exhibitions featuring torture devices, gas masks that looked like gimp masks, and sepia tinged photographs of uniformed young men being disciplined. Hanging from the wall of one of these rooms was a large black and white photo of what at first appeared to be a boy band. They were all dressed in identical suits, and were pulling their very best poses up against some old school prison bars. It could easily have been a promo shot for a pop song called something like "Guilty of Love." The only thing that dented this illusion was the guy on the far right: his "band mates" couldn't have been much more than nineteen or twenty, with thick hair, bright eyes and shiny white teeth, but he must have been pushing thirty. His hairline was receding, his features were haggard, and his eyes gave away something of what he had already seen. If they had entered the X Factor then Simon Cowell would have forced the others to get rid of him. A small plaque underneath stated that they were Jewish insurgents who had been executed shortly after the photo was taken.

The State of Uzupis

I was really in Lithuania to visit the Uzupis Republic, a tiny breakaway state located just east of the capital city's Old Town, within a curve of the Neris River (the name Uzupis means "the other side of the river"). Until the sixteenth century, when two bridges were built, the river had acted as a natural border between the Old Town and an area that was mainly home to Russians and Jews. By the end of the Second World War, most of Uzupis's Jewish residents had been "disappeared": the Soviets and Nazis, along with the help of many ethnic Lithuanians, murdered around three-quarters of Vilnius's 100,000 Jews (nearly half of the city's population). Today, only around 3,000 Jews remain in Vilnius.

Uzupis Republic sign

Angel of Uzupis

I visited Uzupis with Jack, a South African Jew on something of a pilgrimage to his roots: his Grandmother had grown up in Vilnius, "the Jerusalem of the North" before emigrating to Cape Town after the Second World War, in search of a better life. Jack had been staying at a hostel near the train station, for a number of weeks, while searching for both a job and somewhere cheaper to stay. Every day he had wandered the streets of Vilnius until being welcomed in by a local synagogue. He didn't seem that religious but they had offered him help, support and friendship.

Following the Second World War, the now abandoned houses of the Uzupis Jews, forced to leave or murdered, became home to many of Vilnius's least respectable residents: Uzupis became notorious as a sanctuary for prostitutes and thieves. Like many of the rougher districts of cosmopolitan cities it later became a center for artists, attracted by its cheap rents and close proximity to greater wealth. As its rich artistic life attracted new residents, a process of gentrification inevitably followed, leading to the economic expulsion of the lowlife that had once both made the streets so unsafe and the rents so affordable.

Angel of Uzupis Statue

An Artistic Enclave

Uzupis is now an attractive, well-maintained district of Vilnius, with plenty of artist's studios and galleries, and a number of popular restaurants. Back street walls are painted with abstract murals, and darkly erotic sculptures protrude from the walls and are suspended from trees. The Angel of Uzupis, a fantastical sculpture of the archangel Gabriel, had recently usurped a large carved egg—a more fragile symbol of hope and rebirth—atop a heaven piercing plinth in the central square. (The once celebrated egg has now been banished to a less prestigious square in Vilnius by "the angel of the lord").

Perched on top of a far more modest plinth, but almost as revered, is a bust of the iconic American alternative rock musician Frank Zappa (before independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the city space of Vilnius had been populated by numerous busts of Lenin, Marx and other Communist figure heads). As a left-leaning, artistic type, with distinctly Jewish features, Frank Zappa has been enthusiastically adopted as something akin to the patron saint of Uzupis. Inspired by the spirit of Zappa, and unhappy with the enclave's neglect by the city council, the residents sought to break away from the rest of Vilnius, leading to the official declaration of independence of The Republic of Uzupis on April 1st, 1993.

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