Sunday, June 11, 2006

Micronations (Feb 2005)

From Lilliput to Mordor, tiny yet convincingly-detailed countries have been around for centuries. And not all of them are populated by imaginary beings: some, like the Catalan Republic or Malta, are real places inhabited by real people, even though they may not be recognized by other nations. While there are still would-be founding fathers and mothers declaring their backyards or bedrooms to be independent states, today it’s just as common for “micronations” to exist only in cyberspace. Either way, the perks of starting your own micronation are many. Besides getting to call yourself “Lord Dumpling” or “His Excellency, the President of Molossia,” you get to design your own flag, currency, and stamps, and bestow titles and ministries on your friends, as well as use your website to disseminate news to the populace -- and sell souvenirs. With so many land-based and digital micronations staking their claim online, your computer is the perfect vessel for exploring this fascinating realm.

One of the best explanations of what micronations are all about is posted on the user-written reference website Wikipedia. The article has entries on individual micronations with links to their websites, and a list of other portals and informational sites, like (Since this story appeared, it has been added to the Wikipedia entry!) Through the Actual Small Countries website, with links to sites like the CIA World Factbook and Flags of the World, you can find out how to rent the principality of Liechtenstein (or one of its villages) for your next affair. And Footnotes to History lists failed real-world secessionist states and historical oddities going back to Alamut in central Persia, which lasted from 1090 until 1272. (Though the site needs updating, it’s still worthwhile.)

Most micronations are created in fun, and they’re awfully fun to visit. A good example of a bite-sized sovreignty with its own postal and barter system, a well-thought-out constitution and even its own time zone is the Northern Forest Archipelago. The NFA, founded by Lake Placid middle school teacher Jamie Sheffield (otherwise known as King James II), is “primarily a land and animal and plant based nation-state” with outposts throughout the Adirondacks and New England. But its website offers a great lesson in what kinds of structure a country needs to survive, besides having cute photos of two-year-old Crown Prince Ben at the Royal Family’s Summer Palace. Another hobbyist micronation, the Republic of Molossia in Nevada, has as its basic unit of currency the Valora, which look a lot like casino gambling chips and are linked in value to Pillsbury Cookie Dough (3 Valora = one tube of Cookie Dough). Its website features pictures of its railroad, national sport (broomball) and space program.

Some micronations were started when their monarchs were only kids. Robert Madison founded the Kingdom of Talossa in 1979 at the age of 14, when he declared his bedroom in Milwaukee to be independant from the United States. (Talossa is still around, although last year rival factions broke off and formed their own Republic.) Eric Lis of Montreal was only 5 when he created Aerica in 1987. At one point the country, which displays a smiley face on its flag, had more than 500 citizens and “an empire to match the Star Trek Federation of Planets.”

Other land-based micronations break away from their mother country for the publicity. In 1982 the mayor of Key West, Florida announced that the city was seceeding from the U.S. over a Border Patrol blockade of the only road from the mainland. Though the rebels quickly surrendered and applied for foreign aid, the Conch Republic commemorates its brief independence every year with a week-long celebration. Citizenship is open to everyone and you can apply online; remarkably, Conch Republic passports have been accepted in several countries, including the Caribbean and Europe.

A few micronations take the process one step further, going to great lengths to establish their legitimacy. In the 1960s Roy Bates and his family turned an abandoned WWII defense platform in the middle of the English Channel into the Principality of Sealand, conducting a number of bloodless wars ending in court battles or negotiations with invaders and its European neighbors (You’ll want to watch out for micronations that take themselves too seriously, however; they may be the province of separatist groups with grim objectives.)

New micronations (and their websites) are emerging and old ones disappearing all the time, leaving online archeologists to try to make sense of the artifacts left behind. Keep up with the latest developments on the Micronational News Network, featuring headlines from outlets like Antarctica Announcer, the St. Angelsk Times, and the Cyberian Broadcasting Co-op. Yes, there is conflict and strife in the micronational universe, but there is also hope. Events like the Intermicronational Olympic Games, with both real world and online competitions in Frisbee discus, tennis-ball shotput, and virtual checkers, chess and Monopoly, strive to bring unrecognized nations together. Maybe someday silliness will triumph over warfare, and micronations will take the lead to show the rest of the world how to get along.

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