The Weird, Wild World of Micro-Nations Where Anybody Can Be King
The e-mail was signed "Regards, His Excellency. President Kevin Baugh, Republic of Molossia."
No, you’re not forgetting your ex-Soviet bloc geography. Molossia is not on any world map. But what does exist—"everything a country has," Baugh asserted earlier in his missive, "a bank, a post office, a railroad, and an active navy"—you’ll find on a dusty, sagebrush-pocked sliver of Nevada desert. It's a "sovereign, independent nation" as far as “His Excellency” is concerned, and a bizarre, strange lark to most anyone else.
Welcome to the world of micronations, where everyone can be a benevolent dictator.
There was even a conference earlier this month, the first in the actual U.S. of A., held amid chalkboards and school chairs in a public rec room of Anaheim, Calif.’s Central Library. Baugh brought together 40 of the world's most preeminent dignitaries of countries you've never heard of to tend to matters of state as avidly as Disney’s Imagineers tend to Mickey down the road.
Leaders dressed up in their military best and browsed table displays of royal regalia. The highlight, attendees agreed, was a choreographed battle performed by the Lamia Knights, a nonprofit team of amateur medieval sword fighters, in the name of the Kingdom of Shiloh. (It’s exactly what you think: grown men in chain mail LARP-ing in the middle of a public library.)
By all reports, it was a hoot.
"We wanted to come together, share our issues and successes, and get to know each other—just like the United Nations," said His Royal Highness Travis McHenry, Grand Duke of Westarctica.
By definition, a micronation is any entity—physical or virtual—that purports to be or have the appearance of being a sovereign state, but, you know, actually isn’t. They do not enjoy governmental recognition, but that doesn't stop them from trying. Almost all of MicroCon's leaders have written letters to their home governments requesting diplomatic recognition.
“These people still want to be Americans. They just want to be Americans on their own terms," said researcher Steven F. Scharff, who broke down the origins of micronations and their appeal in modern times via an inspirational keynote address (delivered to the conference via YouTube). The Nevada-based shipping clerk has been a student of the micronations movement since the 1990s, when learning about the Vatican and the (actual) UN post office ignited his interest in the whole countries-within-countries concept.
According to Scharff, MicroCon's attendees are mostly peaceful independent dreamers who get a kick out of printing their own stamps and minting their own money and “ruling” over their own tiny slivers of private property.
He describes the current phenomenon as "a big fantasy role-playing game that involves a lot of self-aggrandizement."
Yet micronational leaders haven't always been so benevolent.
A Brief History of Fake Nations
The very first micronation, according to Scharff's research, was the "Upware Republic Society," which began as an exercise in fantasy way back in 1851. It was a literary group of Cambridge students who appointed themselves clerics and consuls, and followed Samuel Butler, author of science fiction novel Erewhon, an anagram for "nowhere."
It wasn't until the 1960s that the first "territorial" micronations—those aiming to establish new physical spaces—began to take root.
For the Republic of Rose Island, founded in 1968, it didn't turn out so well. Italian Giorgio Rosa issued stamps and declared himself president of a floating platform in the Adriatic, all in a bid to draw visitors. But almost as soon as it was built, the Italian navy took dynamite to his dreams for failure to pay taxes.
In 1970, Australian farmer Leonard Casley used his personal property as a stage to protest the government's wheat quotas. In declaring the Principality of Hutt River independent, he didn't get out of paying taxes, but his farm soon became a tourist attraction.
Residents of Key West, Fla., enacted a similarly cheeky secession in 1982 to protest a U.S. Border Patrol roadblock that was meant to stem an influx of Cuban immigrants. Although never legally recognized, the "Conch Republic" moniker still exists as a souvenir-selling curiosity today.
By the 1990s, the Internet’s democratizing force made it much easier to create virtual micronations, where anti-establishment eccentrics planted flags based on political protest. Almost half of MicroCon’s attendees, like the Kingdom of Hamland, exist solely on the Internet and are difficult to differentiate from other social networks or message boards.
Despite some history of secessionism, modern micronations shouldn’t be confused with actual separatist movements like Basque or Scottish nationalism.
Today, about 98 active micronations litter the globe from Australia to Antarctica. An unrelated international convention, PoliNation, will take place later this year within the Free Republic of Alcatraz, a 500-acre micronation founded outside Perugia, Italy, by the son of Nobel laureate Dario Fo.
Micronational movements even have their own archive file at the U.S. State Department, kept by the Office of the Geographer. It's called the "Ephemeral Nations File" and, according to researcher Scharff, it consists mainly of micronations' petitions for diplomatic recognition—and their subsequent rejection letters. (Fittingly, the Office of the Geographer did not respond to requests for comment.)
So what keeps these leaders going?
Underneath the status flags and shiny coins, three threads appear to run through the phenomenon: self-aggrandizement (yes, Your Grace), creative self-expression (flag and costume design), and/or passion for a cause (like the Kingdom of Überstadt, a socialist micronation in Washington state's Puget Sound region whose five citizens attempt to buck U.S. capitalism by growing their own food, dyeing their own "textiles," and "harvesting natural medicines").
Micronational leaders have neither actual celebrity nor regal wealth, so they're grabbing attention in the most official, self-important way possible: by running their own countries. It's Renaissance fair meets model UN, with a hefty dose of political theory. And if you ask them, it’s also plain fun.
As Scharff eloquently said in his MicroCon 2015 keynote, "Dreamers and poets will always build castles in the sky, but only fools and lunatics will try to live in them."
Here’s a sampling.
The Republic of Molossia
Raison d’être: Hobbyist tourism
The Republic of Molossia sits on a 1.3-acre lot east of Reno, Nev., that President Baugh purchased in 1998. Its bank is a wooden hut, which doesn't safeguard real money, but rather houses a stash of "Valora," a so-called currency made of poker chips. Its post office doesn't circulate real mail, but its male mannequin Postmaster "Fred" sits ready, just in case. Its railroad is a toy railroad, and the "active navy" consists of Molossia citizenry (Baugh's 27 family members) taking kayak "expeditions" on Lake Tahoe with squirt guns.
You, too, can tour Molossia, or even join its navy, if you call ahead and give Baugh two weeks' notice. "We're inspired to a certain extent by theme parks. But there's no real profit in having your own country," said Baugh, who works full time in human resources and doesn't charge visitors any immigration fees. But why? Why not. "You just want to have your own country—like Little Caesar." In a commanding blue-green sash and full medals-of-questionable-honor jacket, the benevolent dictator is the embodiment of the self-reflective satire endemic to most micronations.
Raison d’être: Nonprofit awareness
To meet the enterprising leader of Westarctica, you'll have to travel to West Hollywood, Calif., where he works as a recruiter for a media company and advocates for climate change awareness. To reach the actual country—620,000 frozen, uninhabitable square miles of western Antarctica—you’d need a boat and a really good reason (think: climatology research, penguin films).
"I have never been there myself, but we want to occupy that region," says Grand Duke McHenry, who founded the country (pop. 300) in 2001 when he noticed that the land hadn’t been claimed by legitimized nations. McHenry registered Westarctica as a nonprofit in 2014 and nationalizes “citizens” who electronically pledge allegiance to "freedom with the goal of creating a new country in the frigid ice of Antarctica"—and sign up for his newsletter.
Custom-made metal and wooden Westarctican coins might have no real value (other than the U.S. dollars they might garner from curious collectors on EBay), but the Grand Duke hopes their sale will eventually allow him to colonize. "If we put people there permanently, we'll have a better platform to advocate for that melting ice," said McHenry.
The Ambulatory Free States of Obsidia
Raison d’être: Political art
You won't need a passport to visit Obsidia, you'll just need to track down Carolyn Yagjian, the Grand Marshal of this mobile nation. A 29-year-old visual artist from Oakland, she "resents" the fact that most micronations are male-dominated monarchies. So when she found a volcanic obsidian rock on a hiking trail in California, she declared it a matriarchal micronation and made the rock its "mobile embassy."
"I've always been attracted to the idea of statehood," said Yagjian. "And this is an opportunity to question a lot of things people accept as normal about national identity." Her nation-rock, unveiled in a bright-blue-and-hot-pink suitcase, wasn't considered typical even by MicroCon standards. But she won a lot of points for her feminist chutzpah and general creativity.
"I'll allow men to become citizens, but I don't want them to have places in government," added the Grand Marshal, who chose her title more for its authoritarian ring than for its textbook leader-of-military-states meaning. So far, Obsidia is a fake matriarchy of one. But it’s got 63 likes (and counting) on its Facebook page.
Kingdom of Ruritania: Ruritania is 0.34 acres in the U.S. state of Georgia, but Queen Anastasia calls it an "absolute monarchy based on divine right."
HRM Queen Anastasia Sophia Maria Helena
HH Duchess Elizabeth Gretchen von Tarlenheim
Kingdom of Slabovia: Slabovia is an online micronation, which lays claim to 300 acres on Mars. Its official sport is Slabovian Rules Chess. It's basically chess.
HRM King George II
Chancellor Rankin MacGillivray
Provisional Territories of the F.A.R.T.: Standing for Free Autocratic Republic of Totalitarianism, this nation's founding mission is world domination. It currently claims 19 member states. Its national insect is the jumping spider.
Supreme Dictator and Exalted Overlord Vladimir Valentinovich Veselovsky
Kingdom of Vikesland: Another cyber micronation, Vikesland has its own online souvenir shop and broadcasting channel (YouTube) dedicated to videos about micronations.
King Christopher I
Baron Michael Stogner
Royal Republic of Ladonia: Ladonia lays claim to two standing sculptures made of driftwood on a small, rocky shore stretching less than half a mile in the Kullaberg Nature Reserve in southern Sweden.
HM Queen Carolyn
HRH Prince David
West Who: This online micronation's capital city is Whoville. The group makes its own stamps, and anyone can become a citizen.
Vice President John Farr
Kingdom of Shiloh: This virtual micronation is home to a nonprofit sports team of amateur medieval-style sword fighters, called the Lamia Knights.
King Timothy Miller
Crown Princess Samantha of Shiloh
Archduke Sir Jason Wilson
Sir Jason Daniel Wilson
Sir William Becking
Sir Scott Castagneto
Sir Valentino Velasquez
Lord Brandon Scoot Yarbrough-Noel
Lady Mayleene Yarbrough-Noel
Republic of Molossia: A tourist-friendly acre in the Nevada desert, with its own bank, post office, naval academy, and online movie theater.
President Kevin Baugh
First Lady Adrianne Baugh
Commodore Jonathan Miller
Mrs. Commodore Katie Miller
YAN: This online micronation is made up of one guy with a YouTube video, who streams photos of himself set to techno music.
His Holy Highness Yan the First
Grand Duchy of Broslavia: Broslavia is located in Albuquerque. It is an "absolute monarchy" ruled by His Majesty Grand Duke Jacob Felts.
HM Grand Duke Jacob Felts
HM Lord Henry Roberts
Empire of Gilead: Its location in Rio Rancho, N.M., is unverified. But its motto ("valar morghulis") is definitely cribbed from Game of Thrones.
HIM Emperor Joseph Vladimir Christ
House of Homestead: Homestead claims 16 acres in the European principality of Andorra. There, a banquet hall in a medieval castle is "in the making," according to the website.
His Territorial Highness Prince Arthur Louis Pagan
Ambulatory Free States of Obsidia: Obsidia is a volcanic rock, which its leader describes as her "alter ego."
Grand Marshall Yagjian
Kingdom of Überstadt: Located in the state of Washington’s Puget Sound region, this is a socialist group claiming to export wild fruit, textiles, and "natural pharmaceuticals."
HM King Adam I
California Republic: This self-declared country has its origins in the "Bear Flag Revolt" of 1846. It currently comprises 12 citizens and their collective three acres of private property in California. This Republic claims to be "at war with East Germany."
President McCovey Staples
Jane Staples, Tzar of Transportation
Republic of Doria: This republic is a blog based out of Edmonds, Wash., which covers topics like making uniforms and the death of a parakeet named Lucille.
Dictator Dorian Grimes
Grand Duchy of Westarctica: "All are welcome and everyone has the right to their dreams” on these 620,000 chilly Antarctic acres.
Grand Duke Travis McHenry
Pavan Pulipati, Marquis of Sarnoff
Correction: A previous version of this article confused the National Embassy to the California Republic (a protectorate of the Provisional Territories of the F.A.R.T.) with the sovereign nation, the California Republic. Historical details have been corrected and the proper flag replaced in the illustrations. Have also removed mentions of F.A.R.T's land claims as they cannot be verified.