As a nine-year-old growing up at 924 Putnam Street in Newport, Kentucky, Tony Skaggs could look over the Ohio River to downtown Cincinnati’s skyline. He may have daydreamed a bit about what was going on in the big city less than a mile away, but by fourth grade a new obsession about his sense of place in the world took hold.
Handed the heavily illustrated geography book My World of Nations by his fourth-grade teacher, Skaggs began a lifelong pursuit regarding a place called Alphistia. That place didn’t exist in the book, with its roster of nation-states recognized by the United Nations. Alphistia existed only in his head until it began to appear, board by board, in his family’s backyard.
There, he laboriously built structures from scratch, including a chapel, until he had what he jokingly refers to as “a shantytown.” As neighbor kids began to come around, his little settlement of Alphistia became a magnet for play and whimsy, up to and including the time that one of the neighbor kids decided to strike out on his own, creating a different fictional nation down the block.
The buildings of Alphistia were only a part of the appeal for Skaggs. He was building a town, yes, but also creating a deep backstory for a nation that existed largely in his mind. “By Christmas, I started creating maps. That was the beginning.”
The beginning of Alphistia, that is, the kind of self-contained project that for the past several decades has been called a micronation. Skaggs was making maps of a fictional place in which he wanted to live, creating a narrative about the people who might join him in living there and even a language. This wasn’t some type of passing notion. Skaggs kept with the idea all the way through high school until finally purging a huge chunk of Alphistian history, despite his mom’s protestations.
It would take years for him to return to it, but when he did, it was in earnest. Skaggs, now in his seventies, is again leader of Alphistia.
What’s amazing about Skaggs’ story, though, is that he was coming up with his ideas of micronationalism before the term was even coined. In 1967, the same year in which he first dreamt up this dream nation, a place called the Principality of Sealand was claimed by one Paddy Roy Bates, who physically took over a defense platform off the coast of England. There, on a structure called Rough Towers, he created not only a pirate radio station but a physical presence that he claimed was separate from England. The history of Sealand is filled with a host of strange occurrences, including the occasional physical skirmish involving gunplay and ransoms.
Over time, other dreamers and schemers would lay claim to lands around the world, sometimes in remote locales like Sealand, but also in less remote places. Like the Skaggs’ family backyard.
Some founders were serious about laying claim to actual statehood, to independence, to sovereignty. A few, like Bates, had economic reasons for their declarations of independence. But most other micronations were making a political point without actually taking it to the next level. In time, artists and agit-prop provocateurs began to enter the micronational fray, as well, with their projects taking on more of a playful bent (see: Zaqistan in western Utah). Micronationalism, if defined by 100 people taking part in it, would find 100 different reasons for being.
Skaggs was just a kid when his idea took shape. Today, a host of new kids take part in events like MicroCon, which was held in Joliet, Illinois, in late June. There, youths who’ve found one another through social media platforms like Discord are living out the micronational dream with physical and virtual spaces, minting their friends into their cause, claiming generalships or presidencies — and even occasionally calling on acts of war against other micronations.
Tony Skaggs dates the first use of the term “micronation” to Robert Ben Madison, the Mad King of Talossa, who started his own micronation at age 14. Yup, another Midwestern kid with an imagination.
As Atlas Obscura has written about Talossa, “The territory lines of the Kingdom of Talossa started out small, its boundaries encompassing just the bedroom of a 14-year-old Milwaukee boy who had just lost his mother. It was December 26, 1979, when young Robert Ben Madison decided to secede from his country, declaring his bedroom to be the sovereign nation named after the (quite lovely) Finnish word for ‘inside the house.’”
This is the kind of wholesome stuff that accompanies a lot of the contemporary micronational scene’s backstory, as young people claim a small territory in or around their homes.
In other cases, it’s the heads of a family who declare that they and their kin have micronational status. That’s the case for the Republic of Molossia, which holds about 11.3 acres of land near Dayton, Nevada. That micronation is under the benevolent rule of Kevin Baugh and contains multiple members of his family. They seem to have totally signed onto the idea, with theirs being one of MicroCon’s biggest contingencies.
A total of 133 people registered for MicroCon’s U.S. outing this year, with 42 micronations represented. That was a bit of a bump from last year’s Covid-delayed gathering in Las Vegas, but was also small enough that many of the primary events were held inside a single ballroom at a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Joliet. That said, the nearby hallways also held some life, as registrants set up displays that reminded of school science fairs.
While this slender area was a central hub of activity, the entire hotel was given over to micronational chatter. Micronationalists gathered in the main lobby, huddled around tureens of free coffee, chatting about the impact of Latin on the creation of their own microlanguage, the dissolution of this kingdom or that, threads of conversation spilling from Reddit into the IRL realm. At night, the same groups huddled around the man-made pond out back, having the same conversations as a chorus of frogs sang along to their stories and “regular” hotel guests snuck glances at their costumes, which ranged from micronational T-shirts to white glove formal. Anyone staying at the inn was going to be treated to some MicroCon info.
The festivities even included a full morning of lightly competitive athletics, based on the ideals of the Olympics — the Nemean Games. Three events were wed into the morning’s activities, all of them liberally adapted from the official versions of each.
It turns out that you can hold a shot put competition without the actual tool of the sport, the heavy metallic, projectable “shot.” Just sub in a tennis ball. You can have a discus contest through creativity, too, only requiring a couple of dog frisbees and some willing throwers. You can run multiple heats of the 50-meter dash if you’ve got enough folks willing to sprint across a pock-marked grassfield, found aside an abandoned tennis court, next to a picture-postcard creek, below a suburban subdivision. At MicroCon all of this was not only possible, but done.
Part of that is thanks to Philip Pillin of the Kingdom of Pibocip, which is regarded as the longest-running micronation in Ohio. (A couple of dozen micronations are variously active and defunct throughout the state; see sidebar.) Prince Philip is not only a theologian who works in Canton, he’s also a track and field officiant, a skill he picked up from his father and one that was very much a needed skill at the Nemean Games.
While that Friday activity was plenty fun, he also enjoyed his introductory lecture on Saturday, the kickoff conversation at MicroCon, which he dedicated to the idea of the Common Good.
Pillin literally grew up around micronationalists, as Pribocip is a family legacy project, begun in 2000. As the Micronations Wiki notes, “The first monarch of Pibocip, Her Majesty Queen Anita, was installed after the foundation of the nation in 2000 and reigned until her death in 2005. She was succeeded by her son-in-law, Prince Philip Joseph Pillin, as King Philip in 2005.”
Despite his being around this world for his entire life, young Prince Philip says he has been in “a rabbit hole of learning and trying to apply actual political theory into a micronation and then taking that and sharing it with the micronational community to help them articulate their thoughts and defend their passion with people who don’t understand what we do.” How that translates into a speech? “This year I talked about making nations work for the common good and trying to help people be able to articulate better why we do what we do and why it’s important for the world at large.”
Soft-spoken and kindly, but also direct and wickedly articulate, Pillin says that the heart of micronationalism is about belonging. To small tribes, yes, but also the other small tribes that dot the globe.
In his opening address, he noted that the micronational movement is about “friendship, achievement, belonging, creativity, respect for and by others. Those are all things that are a part of the common good or that they’re good for everybody in our lives. As human beings, we live better with those things. And so my argument was that micronations have helped to provide for the common good. We create opportunities for friendship, for achievement, for belonging, for problem solving, for creativity, for respect for them by others.”
To Pillin, the idea is downright utopian: “We are helping people who otherwise might not belong, who otherwise might not achieve, by the way, might not have friends. We created an opportunity for all those wonderful things for people just by existing as micronations.”
At MicroCon, Pillin’s work included explaining the basic mechanics of the shotput to Nemean Games competitors, timing 50-meter races, organizing two-dozen amateur athletes on a cracked tennis court.
“I’m a master’s level U.S. track and field official for USA Track & Field,” Pillin explained on Saturday. “My specialty is horizontal jumps. So yesterday was like, we have to do it differently, because people are not necessarily competing in these events all the time, right? The shot put in particular seemed to vex them, so we were teaching as we were going. … sports are really important for the human person and for the community in helping people achieve.”
Since MicroCon, the Kingdom of Pibocip — located in northeast Ohio, with Prince Philip Pillin as the Minister of Foreign Affairs — has been signing mutual cooperation agreements with other micronations with a goal of “working together for the common good so that all people may be raised up to a new hope.”
You could imagine Fred Rogers being a Pibocian, part of a Kingdom That Cares.
From August 11-13, Ypres, Belgium, will host a second version of MicroCon, this one closer to European micronationalists who’ll be offered another chance to meet and mingle and dine and dance and sign treaties and declare war around the bar of a hotel ballroom.
For Tony Skaggs, the American version was close (like, really close) to his home. Only 110 miles separate his current home from Joliet, where MicroCon was held this summer. He wasn’t there. Not for any one reason.
Well, maybe one: He’s shy. He didn’t necessarily feel up to all the pageantry of a MicroCon gathering.
“A lot of people have created a whole royalty,” he says, “so when they get together for the convention, there’s an awards ceremony, and people love the costumes and royalty play of it all. Other people like the politics and the back and forth of that. It’s a different world and people love to experiment with things other than their everyday realities.”
Skaggs identifies with the experimentation aspect, but his world is more solitary. As a kid, he was inspired less by other micronationalists — “I had not heard of these other places until the internet came along” — and more by his own imagination, and then Tolkien, whom he first discovered as a young teenager.
“Around 1972, I saw an article about Tolkein and his inventions, his languages, his maps and I thought, ‘This is incredible. Wow,’” he recalls. “Through Tolkein, I learned of a niche of people who loved his books.”
What’s also amazing about Skaggs’ story is that he created an early website, one that still exists today at alphistian.blogspot.com. Built in 1995, he notes that the primitive look of the page is something he sort of enjoys, having had a friend build and design the site at the dawn of the functional web.
Several times early on, he says, he made the mistake of throwing away his Alphistian documents. A librarian by profession, he’s learned from those early errors. Today his website is a repository of both early materials and newer updates.
Now living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Skaggs’ micronational work largely takes place alone. He adds new words to his Alphistian language. He draws sketches of the place. He creates on his own clock.
“I’m a lifelong librarian,” he says, “and there is a bit of a treasure trove with what I’ve put on the web. Anyone interested can figure out what it’s all about. It reflects my imagination, my personality. It represents to me a model of what would be a very nice society. I’m just a little different from a lot of MicroCon devotees in Joliet, in that I don’t do costumes very well and they do.”
At some point his project, now well into its sixth decade, will end.
“What is likely to happen is that all my stuff will be donated to a library,” he says. “If you read through my documents, they’re my ideals. A lot of micronatonalists are all for following their dreams, which I believe in. Some go the whole route, but then you’re getting into the real world of politics, like the civil wars that can happen with micronations. When it becomes too real, it’s not quite as much fun.”
Citing the seminal influence of Tolkein, he says, “For me, it’s like how Tolkein imagined all of his worlds. People talk about the Shire and how the Hobbits live and that that’s the world he imagined people living in.
“Interestingly, all these years later, I haven’t seen people set up Hobbit communities. There’re more orcs out there than Hobbits.”
What Micronations Are (Typically) Not
If you’re a person, like Tony Skaggs, who likes to study geography, you might come across names on the map that suggest micronational status. Europe, alone, claims places like Andorra, Lichtenstein, Vatican City, Monaco. They’re recognized by international bodies such as the United Nations. They are, yes, nations, just very small ones.
Assuming these places are part of the micronational movement is somewhat understandable. They’re micro, they’re nations. But they’re real, true, tiny places on a map with full recognition around the world. This is one mild inaccuracy in the way the general public views micronations.
Another is that micronations are born by people with major bones to pick with the government that surrounds them. True, a big part of micronationalism has to do with establishing a core identity outside of the host nation state’s norm. But American splinter/protest groups like the Branch Davidians and the Bundys of Nevada aren’t playing the same game.
For the Free Press, reporter Adam Popescu recently profiled “Texians,” citizens of the Republic of Texas who are finding community in something of a state-within-the-state. They, too, recently held a conference.
Popescu wrote in that July 3 piece, “Men of No Country,” that the Republic of Texas is “a sovereign citizen group that’s been around since the mid-1990s and claims to have around 10,000 members. The FBI estimates there are around 300,000 U.S. citizens who claim no allegiance to the elected government in any form — and their numbers are rising. For some members of the Republic, their goal is to meet and vent at town halls … Others want a full secession. In the meantime, they’re busy figuring out how to disobey the courts, avoid taxes, and generally find ways to circumvent the U.S. government.”
Again, this is not modern micronationalism, per se, though some minor states may take on this type of breakaway, secessionist language.
What is notable is that a host of micronations are headed up by former members of the U.S. military and there’s a definite sense of militarism that runs through some of the younger members’ micronations, with epaulets on many a military-styled jacket at MicroCon. But there’s not an implicit sense that any of these folks would engage in actual gunplay with the jurisdictions that surround their micronation.
Walking through MicroCon, you can’t help but wonder if someone there — be they dressed to the nines in political cosplay or fitting in more subtly — is representing the goals of the greater state, just there to low-key keep tabs on the MicroCon community.
Meet the Buckeye Micronations
Searching for micronations can be a bit of a daunting task, as these places can come and go without much fanfare, leaving nothing more than a trail of years-old Reddit mentions in their wake. The site micronations.wiki finds Ohio well-represented with active communities.
Some of the names indicate the general vibe of a place — say, the Dictatorship of Alissia or, conversely, the Kingdom of Loveland. Competing political philosophies can be potentially found with the Democratic Socialist State of Veltines and the Communist State of Tiffin River, both of which may clash, to degrees, with the Democratic Empire of Gothiva or the Federation of the Buckeyes.
Notable here is that micronations often offer citizenship to people from anywhere in the world, sometimes even offering royal titles for a bit of extra coin. So there’s no exact way to say how many people in Ohio might be a citizen of places hither and yon. At least dozens? Almost certainly. Hundreds? Probably. Thousands? Maybe barely. Just know that someone playing chess at your local coffeehouse might just be a micronationalist, a quiet member of a unique subgroup of the world’s citizens.
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