Light 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 absolutely 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.”
Their chosen neighborhood – Užupis – was once home to a prosperous Jewish population, but most were killed during the Holocaust and after World War II it became abandoned, dirty and dangerous. “When Lithuania declared its independence, life was already hard. Russia cut off our electricity and heating – we had to start from scratch,” Dovydėnaitė explained. “Life was especially difficult for artists and writers, and that’s why all the creatives moved to Uzupis – for the cheap rent and to find a new way of living together after the Soviet era where 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 home for visiting artists, the first of its kind in the Baltic states.
As we strolled through the narrow alleys, Dovydėnaitė pointed out several hidden courtyards. These seedy arcades, once frequented by cutthroats and prostitutes, are now home to street art: around the corner, we came across a collection of black-and-white televisions built into the walls of outhouses; hiding under another low archway, we discovered a large collection of moth-eaten teddy bears; other spaces were filled with colorful sculptures or turned into cramped wine bars and cozy beer bars.
Inevitably, the distinct hip vibe and quirky fame – which has invited comparisons with Montmartre in Paris and Christiania in Copenhagen – caused the price of accommodation to rise sharply. “It’s ironic – it’s now one of the most expensive areas in the city. No budding artist could afford to buy here now,” Dovydėnaitė muttered.
Emerging onto the cobbled main street of the republic – once known as ‘death street’ due to the high murder rate – we passed the main square dominated by the statue of the Archangel Gabriel which gave in Užupis its nickname: Republic of Angels. Further on we came to a long brick wall covered in shiny metal panels. They flaunt 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 like their owners” and “Everyone has the right to have doubts but it doesn’t have to”.
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, it’s about relearning people to think for themselves and speak freely after 70 years of oppression – you could say it’s the first written human rights document. man in post-Soviet Lithuania.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many residents of the republic have been involved in organizing city-wide protests and initiatives 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, then Olympic swimmer Rūta Meilutytė swam across,” she explained. “I wanted to show that the Russians have blood on their hands. But I also wanted to show hope – to show Ukrainians swimming in all that blood, but towards freedom.
Raising her glass of bitter local liqueur Trejos Devynerios in a toast, she added: “Here in Uzupis – and in Lithuania – we feel a strong sense of empathy with what is happening in Ukraine. After all, we were once the same country – it could happen to us.
How to do
Fly from London Gatwick to Vilnius, from £78 return, with Ryanair (ryanair.com). Eat at Queensberry (dish from €7; m.facebook.com/queensberryrestaurant). Stay at The Artagonist (artagonist.lt), with double rooms from £68 a night.