This article appeared in the New York Times on May 24, 2000. It propted many new citizenship applications and was the Empire's first appearance in a major world newspaper.


Utopian Rulers, and Spoofs, Stake Out Territory Online
By STEPHEN MIHM

Try locating the Kingdom of Cherusken on a map.

Not able to place it? How about the Grand Duchy of Haren? Or the Kingdom of Talossa? The Free Republic of Laputa? What? You can't even find the Dominion of Asphynxia?

Don't worry, none of them are in the atlas. All are so-called micronations, a catch-all term that encompasses the many imaginary states, model nations and "counter countries" that exist only in the minds of their creators -- and on the Web. They range from the silly (the Republic of Roadkills-R-Us, for example, whose motto is "Tread on Me") to more serious attempts at virtual nation-building.

Why create your own country? Motives abound, but, as Liz Stirling, an artist and founder of Lizbekistan, said, "It's a great way to explore why people come together, and what things like community and nation mean." Citizens of micronations participate by voting, writing for their country's newspapers, running ministries and sometimes waging civil war (by hacking into the site and shutting it down).

Nevertheless, the micronation movement predates the Internet; indeed, the impulse to create model countries has a long history. Writers like Thomas More and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote accounts of imagined utopian communities.

More recently, groups of "geo fiction" enthusiasts have drawn up plans for imaginary countries complete with their own flags, monetary systems, stamps, constitutions, legislatures -- in short, all the trappings of a real nation.

Starting in the mid-1990's, the Web has spurred the creation of hundreds of new "nations." Many have since organized into leagues or assemblies comparable to the United Nations. Most prominent are the League of Secessionist States and the United Micronations.

But such democratic assemblies are rare: many imaginary states are the creations of closet despots nostalgic for the Roman Empire and various Balkan fiefdoms. It's no surprise, then, that many quickly disintegrate or fall victim to coups.

While most imaginary nations exist only in cyberspace, a few originate in or lay claim to territory, like a college campus, a suburb or an uninhabited island.

But attempts at annexation are usually made in jest. There is more than enough room on the Web.

Here is an almanac of some of the more noteworthy nations now online, along with their coordinates in cyberspace.

BERGONIA: www.bergonia.org

An exercise in socialist dreaming, Bergonia is a fictional island somewhere in the North Atlantic; it is blessed with a stable socialist democracy and eco-friendly inhabitants. Bergonia is the creation of Joe Cometti, a lawyer in West Virginia.

"It has been an on-and-off-again project since I was a kid," Mr. Cometti said.

The name Bergonia comes from a fictional country depicted in a "Superman" television episode from the 1950's.

But its purpose is not so childish; Mr. Cometti described his creation as "my contribution to the reinvention of socialism via the Net." It has nothing to do with what he termed the "distorted monstrosity of Red Star commmunism," he said. Still, Mr. Cometti doesn't view Bergonia as a utopia.

"I want Bergonia to be plausible," he said. "And that means there will be corruption, crime and human pettiness."

THE PRINCIPALITY OF FREEDONIA: www.freedonia.org

A country of libertarian leanings, Freedonia has very little connection with the Marx Brothers' fictional country of the same name. Its leader, John Alexander Kayle, is a student at Babson College in Massachusetts. He is studying for a degree in investment finance and professes a fondness for the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Ayn Rand.

Mr. Kayle, who uses the screen name John I, and his fellow Freedonians hope to purchase a chunk of territory in Somaliland and establish a libertarian enclave. Notwithstanding its homelessness, Freedonia has minted its own money (silver) and even written a national anthem that has this refrain: "Oh, Freedonia, Freedonia the land that saves, Freedonians never shall be slaves."

THE KINGDOM OF TALOSSA: www.talossa.com

This constitutional monarchy was founded by Robert Ben Madison in 1979, when he was a high school student in Milwaukee and declared his bedroom to be a sovereign state.

Talossa has its own constitution and legislature; it allows "foreigners" to become citizens, take part in elections and formulate policy. Since going on the Web, Talossa has acquired some 60 citizens, most of whom live outside the United States. The site's citizens claim to have inspired the proliferation of online micronations.

AERICAN EMPIRE:

www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Surf/6818/aerica.html Aerican, one of the more imaginative sites, refers to itself as "the Monty Python of micronationalism," and its inhabitants worship a being known as the Great Penguin.

The site warns its readers: "Aerica places a high emphasis on silliness. People who cannot act silly are permitted entry only on a limited basis." A smiley-face adorns the flag.

Also amusing is Roadkills-R-Us (www.rru.com), with its riffs on secession and fallen fauna.

THE HOLY EMPIRE OF REUNION: www.reuniao.org

This micronation was formed by ClŠudio de Castro, who has taken the screen name Emperor Claudio I, and Bernardo Bauer in 1997. Claudio and most of his 780 subjects actually hail from Brazil. His Imperial Majesty runs the country with an iron hand, and visitors to the site are greeted with the following disclaimer: "Reunion is not a Democracy, so you won't be bothered by candidates and elections."

Instead, citizens engage in intrigues that have not been seen since Louis XIV, wielding influence through Reunion's virtual courts and chambers.

CYBER YUGOSLAVIA www.juga.com

This is a political site that is critical of the extreme nationalism that has led to ongoing conflict in the areas that made up the former nation of Yugoslavia. It issues passports and grants citizenship for its virtual version of Yugoslavia.

A site that also has a political outlook is the virtual nation of NSK (www.ljudmila.org/embassy), the creation of Slovenian intellectuals and artists.

The site's manifesto declares, "The NSK state denies in its fundamental acts the categories of fixed territory, the principle of national borders, and advocates the law of transnationality." Like Cyber Yugoslavia and many other sites, NSK offers citizenship and passports.

LIZBEKISTAN: lizbekistan.com

Until Sept. 9, 1999, Lizbekistan was one of the most popular micronations.

That is when its creator, an Australian artist named Liz Stirling, blew up the site.

She began work on Lizbekistan in 1996 as part of a larger project on citizenship and printed stamps and passports for would-be Lizbeks. Lizbekistan even had its own currency, the nipple. In its heyday, the imaginary nation had four newspapers, including The Lizbek Sentinel, which Ms. Stirling described as "the independent official organ," and The Dependent, jokingly known as "the voice of authority." Lizbekistan eventually acquired several thousand citizens before being consigned to oblivion last year.

Refugees of Lizbekistan can now frequent two related sites, www.lizbekdiaspora.com and www.lizvegas.com.


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