Lean as a pixie in a bright red cap, Vilija Dovydėnaitė, the only official guide to her eccentric microstate, preceded me across the fast-flowing Vilnele River. “Welcome to the Republic of Užupis,” she said as we crossed the bridge. “Uzupis means ‘on the river’.”
Beyond the Vilnele, in the heart of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, lies a square kilometer enclave with its own currency – the Uža euro, pegged to the price of a pint of beer, its own president, its constitution and its national flag (four, in fact – one for each season), and even a 12-man army led by three quixotic orders: “Do not beat others. Don’t retaliate. Don’t surrender”. I went there earlier this month to learn more about its bohemian ideals – and to find out how it became Ukraine’s smallest ally in the war against Russia.
It was a local photographer, Saulius Paukstys, who had the idea for Užupis in the early 90s. He had the curious idea of replacing the statues of Lenin demolished at the end of the Soviet era with portraits of Frank Zappa. Pushing the absurd to its limit, Paukstys – along with the current president, filmmaker Roman Lileikis – declared the Republic of Uzupis, with Zappa as its patron saint, on April Fool’s Day 1997. “It was completely crazy to do this – not just because it was just seven years after Lithuania itself declared independence from the Soviet regime, but also because Zappa had never even visited Lithuania,” Dovydėnaitė said. I guess it was as good a test as any of our newfound democracy and freedom.”