Big Ideas Need Small Places
The patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.
You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
The desert republic of Molossia doesn’t appear on many maps, and it doesn’t have a seat in the United Nations. But if you drive about 18 miles northeast from Carson City, Nevada, you’ll find it. It’s not right there on the highway—you need to take a left at Lafond Avenue. Then there’s another left at Wagon Wheel Way, and then you take a right on Mary Lane. “The Republic of Molossia is at number 226, just up on the right,” report the authors of Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations. “Make sure they’re expecting you; don’t just show up.”
Molossia has been independent since 1977, though it did not settle into its current location until the mid-’90s. It has a navy (an inflatable raft), a national observatory (a telescope), and a currency; the latter, called the Valora, is “pegged to the value of Pillsbury Cookie Dough.” With a total population of four, it’s unable to field its own baseball team, so instead it focuses on broomball, a local sport that “can appear very similar to field hockey.” The republic also has its own time zone: according to the country’s official website, Molossian Standard Time “is 39 minutes ahead of Pacific Standard Time, or if you prefer, 21 minutes behind Mountain Standard Time.”
Molossia is a micronation: a homebrewed jurisdiction that doesn’t qualify for statehood by most conventional measurements, but still proudly insists on its independence. To these small statelets, Vatican City is uncomfortably large and Liechtenstein is a leviathan. They’re a familiar feature in fiction and film: the independent borough in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the London district that stumbles into a temporary sovereignty in the comedy Passport to Pimlico, and the modern-medieval Duchy of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse That Roared and its sequels.
In real life—or, at least, that mode of life that isn’t as fictional as a novel—micronations fall into three rough categories. There are the places that actually achieved a somewhat sovereign status, at least until a larger neighbor invaded or the head of state found another way to occupy his time. There are quiet backyard countries like Molossia, which may lay claim to territory but don’t do anything that might aggravate the empires that surround them. And there are entirely virtual nations—a humorless grump might call them imaginary—that don’t exist outside a pamphlet or a website.
The classic guide to such societies is Erwin Strauss’s 1979 book, How to Start Your Own Country: How You Can Profit from the Decline of the Nation State. Since the ’90s, several websites have built on Strauss’s work; the best of them is James L. Erwin’s Footnotes to History at buckyogi.com/footnotes. In 2005, the Scottish comedian Danny Wallace hosted a BBC miniseries about micronations, also called How to Start Your Own Country; it ended with the creation of the kingdom of Lovely, located in Wallace’s apartment. (From his declaration of independence: “Please do get in touch if there are any legal ramifications to what I’m doing, or if you have any problems with it whatsoever. If you don’t ring, I’ll just assume everything’s a-okay and proceed as planned.”) Now the Lonely Planet series has published a travel guide devoted entirely to these DIY polities.
The book, written primarily by the Australian journalist John Ryan, has a slightly different focus than its predecessors. Erwin is more interested in curious bits of history than in curious pieces of the present. Other websites tend to be focused on purely virtual nations, often because they’re run by the webmaster-kings of such countries. Strauss’s chief interest is those people making a genuine attempt to free themselves from the megastate by establishing a ministate—or, in some cases, a proprietary operation that does not pretend to be a state at all. (He devotes several pages to casino ships and offshore pirate radio stations.) Strauss also offers a surprisingly extensive discussion of micronational defense—or maybe it isn’t so surprising since he also wrote a book called Basement Nukes.
Lonely Planet, by contrast, deals mainly with charming, tongue-in-cheek projects like Molossia. There are a few purely virtual countries here, but in general, it doesn’t make sense to give space in a travel guide to places you can only visit with an Internet connection. There are a few “real” countries as well, but again, not too many. There is Sealand, a decommissioned sea fort in the North Sea that has been ruled and defended by Prince Paddy Roy Bates since 1967. There is Christiania, a hippie squatter district in Denmark—sorry, adjacent to Denmark—that has maintained its autonomy since 1971. (Officially, Christiania is anarchist, so it might be inaccurate to describe it as a state. But a friend who has visited the place tells me that in practice it’s run by a benign oligarchy of drug dealers, so anarchist might not be the best label for it either.) And there are the Knights of Malta, who used to control a rather large swath of territory, but today hold just two buildings in Rome. They have diplomatic relations with 98 other countries, and Italy recognizes their sovereign status, so who am I to argue?
But most of the micronations here are less ambitious about asserting their autonomy. Instead, we have entities such as the mobile Copeman Empire (territory: a trailer), the tourist-friendly kingdom of Romkerhall (territory: a hotel), and the libertarian principality of Freedonia (territory: none, but they’re looking). “Many find it a rewarding hobby to run a model railroad, or operate model airplanes,” Strauss wrote in his 1979 book. “These model enterprises have all the trappings of the real thing, in miniature. Similarly, it’s possible to run a ‘model country.’ You need only declare your home to be an independent nation, and proceed from there.”
The patron saint of such projects is Joshua Norton I, the San Francisco eccentric who in 1859 declared himself the emperor of the United States. He issued his own currency, which local businesses honored; he made royal proclamations, which the local newspapers printed; according to legend, he once managed to stop an anti-Chinese riot merely by standing in front of the mob and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I can’t endorse all of his policies—the fines he levied on anyone he overheard calling the city “Frisco” were an unconscionable interference with freedom of speech—but his reign was altogether far less bloody than that of his two rival emperors in the east, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. When he died in 1880, tens of thousands of people attended his royal funeral.
Norton managed to live as an emperor through the exercise of sheer personality and is thus an inspiration to modern micronationalists. The Republic of Molossia includes a Norton Park, named for his imperial majesty, and a panel of microleaders recognizes their peers with the annual Norton Awards for Micronational Excellence and Achievement. Lonely Planet honors him appropriately with his own entry in the guide.
I did notice two factual errors in the book. A sidebar mentions a handful of western counties that voted in 1992 to secede from Kansas and start a state of their own; the authors misconstrued this as an attempt to leave the U.S. entirely, suggesting that the Australian authors might not grasp all the nuances of American politics. Similarly, the introduction includes a throwaway reference to the Branch Davidians of Waco as “a secessionist cult.” Since when did the Davidians intend to secede from anything larger than the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists? I think the writer confused them with the Freemen of Justus Township, Montana, who really did declare themselves sovereign before the FBI arrived and arrested them in June 1996.
Still, the book is entertaining reading, and despite such minor errors, I assume it would be useful as an actual guide as well, if you ever decide to take a whirlwind tour of the world’s micronations. Indeed, looking through it, I see I may have already been to as many as three of the countries listed. There is the State of NSK, an art project linked to the Slovenian band Laibach. It doesn’t claim any actual territory, but I saw Laibach play a few years back, and it’s possible I accidentally entered the state in the course of the concert. There is also the Maritime Republic of Eastport, located right over the bridge from Annapolis, Maryland. It apparently declared independence on Super Bowl Sunday, 1998, and marks its autonomy with an annual game of tug-of-war against the neighboring town. I’ve visited it at least once without ever noticing that I was touching the sweet soil of freedom.
And there are the Knights of Malta, with their two sovereign buildings in Rome. I stopped in a few years ago with my then-fiancée, now-wife, while we toured Italy—it wasn’t far out of our way, and I’d always been curious about the place. The knights gamely opened their gates and allowed us to enter the parking area, where we spent a few minutes snapping pictures of each other.
I suppose it doesn’t sound very exciting to hang around taking photos next to a bunch of cars. But I was living the dream. I was standing on a sovereign parking lot. If you’ve done that once, it’s hard to restrain yourself from doing it again. Next time I’m in Nevada, I’ll have to swing by the Republic of Molossia. Don’t worry, I’ll call ahead.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.