Uzupis gets angel, and nutty speeches

  • 2002-04-04
  • Darius James Ross

Five years ago, artists and "bohemians" living in the offbeat Vilnius suburb of Uzupis chose April 1 to declare their independence from Lithuania. No blood was spilled, of course, but what started out as a sarcastic April Fool's Day protest by a bunch of disgruntled artists has grown into a grassroots movement to create a truly alternative community.

The declaration of independence was really just a tongue-in-cheek protest against the rapid gentrification of the city's Old Town. The attractiveness of the real estate in the Old Town had pushed the artistic and fringe community across the bubbling Vilnele River into Uzupis (Lithuanian for "beyond the river").

Uzupis now has its own anthem, flags (one for each season), ersatz license plates, elected president, constitution, and now, after much anticipation, its very own angel.

The 11-meter-tall angel, created by sculptor Romas Vilciauskas, is a symbol of the link between the earth and the hereafter. It now stands in the main square intersected by Uzupio, Maluno and Paupio streets.

Thousands of Uzupians and their neighbors in Vilnius gathered in the square on April 1 - which fell on Easter Monday this year - for the official unveiling.

The ceremony began with a parade around Uzupis. The republic's president, Romas Lileikis, and Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas (a local resident and therefore "citizen" of the republic) rode in a two-seat convertible wearing red tunics.

They were followed by four young girls dressed as angels. The eclectic motorcade also featured some elite-looking horsemen in renaissance equestrian dress, leather-clad bikers and a marching band.

On their way to the square they passed makeshift border crossing points manned by "guards" wearing comical military uniforms.

Prior to the start of the speeches, a "master of ceremonies" enjoined the crowd to repeat the Pythonesque last three declarations in the Uzupis constitution: "Don't conquer. Don't defend. Don't surrender."

The officials' addresses were witty and heartfelt. "This angel is a symbol of birth and rebirth. It is our gift to the world," said Arturas Zuokas. "We all have the chance to be an angel."

"This angel is a gift to all people of goodwill in the world," added Romas Lileikis. "Uzupis itself wants nothing in return, as it needs nothing other than liberty."

It was clear though, that he was referring to unconstrained artistic freedom in a libertarian sense, and not political emancipation.

United States Ambassador John Tefft won the cheers of the crowd for his very understandable Lithuanian. "Greetings to the residents of Uzupis from the United States, the land of the Bic Mac and Michael Jordan," he announced light-heartedly.

He also presented greetings on behalf of his dog, Louie, which he brought along for the progressive clause in the constitution stating, "In Uzupis, every dog has the right to behave as a dog."