Nimble as a goblin in a bright red cap, Vilija Dovydėnaitė, the only official guide in her bizarre microstate, leapt ahead of me across the fast-flowing Vilnele River. “Welcome to the Republic of Užupis,” she declared as we crossed the bridge. “Uzupis means ‘beyond the river’.”
Beyond Vilnele, in the heart of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, hides a one square kilometer enclave with its own currency: the Euro Uža, anchored for the price of a pint of beer, its own president, the constitution and the national flag (four, actually – one for each season) and even a 12-man army ruled by three quixotic orders: “Don’t defeat the others. Don’t react. Do not give up”. I visited her earlier this month to learn more about her bohemian ideals and to find out how she became Ukraine’s smallest ally in the war against Russia.
It was a local photographer, Saulius Paukstys, who came up with the idea of Užupis in the early 1990s. He had the curious idea of replacing the Lenin statues demolished at the end of the Soviet era with the likeness of Frank Zappa. Pushing the absurd to the limit, Paukstys – along with the current president, director Roman Lileikis – declared The Republic of Uzupis, with Zappa as its patron saint, April Fool’s Day 1997. because it was only seven years since Lithuania itself declared independence from the Soviet regime, but also because Zappa had never even visited Lithuania, “Dovydėnaitė said.” I suppose it was a good way to test our newfound democracy and freedom “.
Their chosen district – Užupis – was once home to a thriving Jewish population, but most were killed in the Holocaust and after World War II became abandoned, dirty and dangerous. “When Lithuania declared independence, life was already hard. Russia cut off our electricity and heating: we had to start from scratch “, explained Dovydėnaitė.” Life was particularly difficult for artists and writers, which is why all creatives moved to Uzupis – for the cheap rent and to find a new way of living together after the Soviet era, when tolerance and respect for others did not exist. “
These days the cobbled streets are lined with designer boutiques, trendy cafes and studios, including the Užupis Art Incubator, an experimental hotbed for visiting artists that is the first of its kind in the Baltic states.
As we strolled through the narrow alleys, Dovydėnaitė pointed out several hidden courtyards to us. These squalid arcades, once frequented by cutthroats and prostitutes, now house street art: turning a corner we came across a collection of black and white televisions embedded in the walls of an outside toilet; bending under another low arch we discovered a large collection of moth-eaten teddy bears; other spaces were filled with colorful sculptures or adapted to cramped wine bars and cozy beer halls.
Inevitably, the quaint trendy setting and unusual fame – which drew comparisons with Montmartre in Paris and Christiania in Copenhagen – caused housing prices to rise sharply. “It’s ironic: this is now one of the most expensive parts of the city. No aspiring artist can afford to buy here now, ”Dovydėnaitė murmured.
Emerging on the main paved street of the republic – once known as “the Way of Death” due to the high rate of murders – we passed the main square overlooked by the statue of the Archangel Gabriel who gave Užupis the nickname: Republic of the Angels. Further on we came to a long brick wall covered with shiny metal signs. They show the constitution of the microstate, Dovydėnaitė told me. Translated into more than 50 different languages, it consists of more than 40 articles. They include “Cats have the right not to love their owners” and “Everyone has the right to have doubts, but this is not an obligation”.
Dovydėnaitė explained: “It’s written in a funny way but if you put it in the right context it makes a lot of sense. Like the Republic itself, these are people who re-learn to think for themselves and express themselves freely after 70 years of oppression: it could be said that this is the first written document on human rights in post-Soviet Lithuania ”.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many inhabitants of the republic have been involved in organizing protests and initiatives across the city to show solidarity with Ukraine. At Uzupio Kavine, a local pub that doubles as the republic’s presidential office, I met Neringa Rekašiūtė, an artist whose recent work includes a powerful anti-war video showing a woman swimming in a blood-red lake. “I used the pond outside the Russian embassy – we dyed it red and then Olympic swimmer Rūta Meilutytė swam,” she explained. “I wanted to show that the Russians have bloody hands. But I also wanted to show hope, to show the Ukrainians that they are swimming through all this blood, but towards freedom ”.
Raising his glass of local Trejos Devynerios bitter liqueur for a toast, he added: “Here in Uzupis – and in Lithuania – we feel a strong sense of empathy for what is happening in Ukraine. After all, once we were the same country, this could happen to us. “
How to do it
Fly from London Gatwick to Vilnius, from £ 78 return, with Ryanair (ryanair.com). Eat at Queensberry (main courses from € 7; m.facebook.com/queensberryrestaurant). Stay at the Artagonist (artagonist.lt), with doubles from £ 68 per night.