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(Credit: Alamy / Far Out / Ville Hyvönen)

Music

Užupis, the Lithuanian republic that replaced a Lenin statue with Frank Zappa

@TomTaylorFO

“Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.” – Frank Zappa

On the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius lies the ancient picturesque neighbourhood of Uzupis, where, in the early 2000s, a quiet bohemian revolution took place. The sort of seemingly nonsensical revolution that results in the toppling of a V.I. Lenin statue and the incumbent replacement erection of Frank Zappa’s face, but it has the sort of historical depth swirling in the welter beneath the unfathomable surface that an exploration of what caused it would make for a great isosteric podcast episode.

The artsy nook and cranny of Uzupis consisted of only about 120 residents during the great millennial revolution when the 148 acres were swarmed by the hubbub of its demimonde denizens as they sauntered the lanes of art galleries and courtyards in moustachioed mutiny. Shortly after, it was dubbed the Republic of Angels, as it established its own president, bishop, churches, embassy and a flag for each season. Upholding this revolution was an army of twelve of the Republic’s hardiest residents.

The hero of this town? None other than America’s foremost musical iconoclast, Frank Zappa, of course. When communism finally withdrew from the area in 1991, its icons also departed, and with the literal empty plinths begging for a hero, lifelong Frank Zappa fan, civil servant and Uzupis resident, Sailius Paukstys, saw an opportunity to have the ‘Peaches En Regalia’ guitar God, serves as a symbol of their newly empowered identity. 

He told The Guardian: “We were desperate to find a symbol that would mark the end of communism, but at the same time express that it wasn’t always doom and gloom”. Naturally, the doom-defying, banality-eviscerating, political oddity that is Frank Zappa heralded the new age. Whilst Zappa’s personal politics are relatively inscrutable given his obfuscated persona, he did once say: “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” so perhaps he’s not the worst candidate to mark the independent transition?

After a lengthy debate, Paukstys managed to convince the local authorities that he was the right rock star to replace the Lenin bust, and Zappa’s head was soon commissioned. As he explains: “They said: ‘What has he got to do with Lithuania anyway?’ We said: ‘Nothing really.’ Then someone convinced them that Zappa had Jewish features and seeing as Jewish history is very important to Lithuania, they plumped for that.”

The statue of Frank Zappa in Užupis. (Credit: Ville Hyvönen)

During the grand unveiling of the statue, a military brass band gathered to play Zappa’s hits, which was no doubt a difficult task, and the coterie of bohemians that had helped to put him in his rightful place celebrated riotously. The symbol stood as a measure of arts subversive force, and it later encouraged the people of Uzupis to go for a full Republic. “The spirit of Zappa made us see that independence from Moscow was not enough and persuaded us to declare independence from the rest of Vilnius,” Paukstys told The Guardian

Today, the town remains one of the world’s smallest Republics where the notion of Frank Zappa’s spirit looming like a numen of creative luminosity doesn’t seem so barmy. The tale of local residents declares that if you cross the bridge to their utopian realm of art, and catch eyes with the bronze statuette of a mermaid perched upon the city walls, then you’ll never want to leave. And as it turns out, it’s a dominion of such beguiling charm that the concept of succumbing to its allure isn’t much of a stretch either.

While it is often the case that in these scattered societies, some sort of hook lingers under the surface, it would appear that the nook of Uzupis has retained the integrity of its vision. As local tourism minister Kestas Lukoskinas told the BBC: “I [am] very excited to meet people who dreamed that there was such a country in the world. This mixture of dream and reality is the best I could’ve hoped for when we began all this,” he said. “They found their country, here in reality. That’s their ultimate goal and I’m very happy.”

Rather comically, Frank Zappa may not have ever visited, but his ethos that he “never set out to be weird, it was always other people who called [him] weird,” lives strong as the town disavows the absurd notion that surrounds it. It certainly sits outside the norm, but anyone who ever visits will soon succumb to the almost Duchampian mirror that it holds to society and celebrate that it might indeed be an oddity, but it’s certainly got a few things right along the way.

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