“A dog has the right to be a dog.” A day-trip to the Republic of Užupis, Lithuania

Not only does a dog have the right to be a dog in the Republic of Užupis. According to its Constitution, cats are not obliged to love their owners (Article 13) and humans have the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof (Article 2), to be happy or unhappy (Articles 16 and 17), understand nothing (Article 24), to cry (Article 33) or quite simply have no rights at all (Article 37).

Founded in 1997 in a neglected suburb of the Lithuanian capital, the Republic of Užupis is on the small side, as republics go, with a population of just a few thousand spread over about half a square kilometer. In addition to its Constitution, it has a small (non-standing) army of a dozen men, a President and an extensive cabinet featuring traditional posts (Foreign Minister, Prime Minister) as well as more innovative portfolios. Glev Divov, a Russian DJ, is Minister of Sound. The Republic’s emissaries and ambassadors are active world-wide, recruiting a handful of notables as honorary citizens including the Dalai Lama (Užupis recognizes Tibet and Taiwan). It has its own currency – an Užupis Euro note is good for half a liter of beer and/or some pastries at the local bakery. Negotiations are underway to install an ATM. Its flag – a blue hand with a hole in the middle – denotes, depending on mood,  either the blister on a worker’s hand or the hole of poverty in the hand of a pauper. On some days it’s simply a sign that says STOP – unless you’re prepared to squeeze through the tight hole of difference. Allegiance to this flag is not an issue and you’ll only need a (hand-stamp) visa to enter on the National Holiday, April 1.

Irreverence, irony, a little chaos: these are the three legs on which the Republic of Užupis wobbles gently on the outskirts of Vilnius’ old town. Many of its founder members and current inhabitants are artists and the Republic maintains diplomatic ties to Dresden’s Bunte Republik Neustadt and Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania. Walking its one main street, past picturesque houses in faded yellows, greens and pinks set around a small triangular town square and Guardian Angel, my footfall is echoed by  impish laughter. In a courtyard behind rusting wrought iron gates, Prime Minister Sakalas Gorodeckis shows me the smart new cars lined up opposite dilapidated housing still waiting for the promise enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution: the right to hot water. A Republic of contrasts, with a lop-sided smile.

So far, the Republic’s Minister in Case of Invasion has done sterling work. All is peace and tourists are few. But how long can Užupis stem the unwelcome tide of development and its attendant armies? The bogeyman of gentrification already has one foot on the bridge that spans the small Vilnia River marking the Republic’s western border with the capital. Beyond it, a low-slung, red brick cafe hosts the weekly parliamentary meetings at which development in, and of, Užupis is debated.

Andreas Rodenbeck, a local teacher and Ambassador to Germany, is part of the strategy team negotiating with Vilnius’ city hall to curb the construction of buildings that are too high or too modern to fit comfortably within the Republic’s urban fabric. Lawyers fees are generally paid for with a whip-round. Happily, Užupis has some famously wealthy residents.  Sadly, these have ideas of their own when it comes to status and representation. Vilnius’ controversial former mayor Artūras Zuokas has built a house slightly further up on Užupis’ main street:  a moderately tasteful exercise in minimalist architecture, it rises like a concrete fist amid the slightly distressed allure of its surroundings.

During his tenures, Artūras Zuokas was credited with enabling Vilnius’ emergence as a clean and vibrant 21st century city. A place that has seen centuries of turmoil on the crossroads between traders, crusading knights and expansionist neighbours now luxuriates in well-restored churches and squares, respected universities – and a Burberry flagship store. Exuberant youth roars down its thoroughfares of an evening in un-muffled sports cars in which sequined Taylor Swift lookalikes sip champagne and greet the night.

You won’t find any such nonsense across the bridge in Užupis, which has only one bar of note: Spunka: a narrow establishment with a wide choice of beers and cohort of regulars. When its Trip Advisor ratings started attracting too many outsiders, negative comments were purposefully posted to downplay its popularity.

Maintaining a spirit of creative anarchy. And supporting the underdog. These are battles at the vanguard of local identity, fought with gusto by the Užupisians. 39. Do not defeat; 40. Do not fight back; 41. Do not surrender. The Constitution’s last three invocations are the clarion cry of the Angel on its square. Enter, but only if you can be bothered to disentangle the Republic’s surface ambiguities. You’ll be welcomed then, with a laugh and a sigh.  

 

And maybe even offered a post as ambassador.

 

 

Eve Lucas

2 Comments

  • Gladys says:

    Who knew? Still so much to see, if one is spared…

    • Eve Lucas says:

      Gladys dear – cup half full is mostly your cup of tea. Roll with that –

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