When Daria Shapovalova arrived in Aberdeen to study for a PhD in international law she never imagined that a decade later she would still be there, lecturing at the University of Aberdeen and leading the institution’s Centre for Energy Law. Her initial encounter with the city had been inauspicious, to the point that she had not anticipated making it her home.
“When I was doing my masters in the Netherlands I’d met an academic from Aberdeen who said there were scholarships available and would I like to research international law and oil development in the Arctic,” she says. “I came here and it was a shock in terms of the weather; I got into a taxi at the airport and the driver was talking to me and I didn’t understand a word he was saying. But soon got the right clothes and I now understand everything – you can throw me in the middle of Fraserburgh and I’ll be fine.”
While her arrival in the city was hard, not long after she got to Aberdeen geopolitical events meant the focus of Ms Shapovalova’s work was forced to change. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had led to a deterioration in Russian-Western relations and in the Arctic, where Russia had worked alongside countries including Canada, Norway and the US, energy sector working agreements were turned on their head. There had been strong co-operation between the nine nations that made up the Arctic Council at that time, but Russia was largely ostracised following the invasion, with the work of the council being suspended completely after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
It was not only Ms Shapovalova’s research that changed as a result of Russia’s Crimean move, though, but her personal circumstances too.
“When the Crimean annexation happened it changed my research a lot but it also changed my personal life because I’m from Crimea,” she explains. “I couldn’t go home any more and I had to start to support myself. I worked in every coffee shop in Aberdeen and then when I finished my PhD there was a job in the energy law department at the university. “In 2017 I became the secretary of the energy law department and did that for a couple of years before becoming a lecturer. Then in 2020 Tina Hunter, who was director of the Centre for Energy Law, left to take up a position at Macquarie Law School in Australia. I thought it was a big ask for me at that point to be a director but if you don’t ask you don’t get and it was then that I was appointed co-director.”
Ms Shapovalova led the centre along with Thomas Muinzner until she was reappointed sole director in September this year. As her first term at the helm had overlapped with the coronavirus pandemic, she says she felt she had to put her name forward to lead the centre again after things returned to some semblance of normality.
“My first term coincided with the pandemic, which meant I was also home alone with a two-year-old,” she says. “I felt that now we are back to normal and my daughter is at school I can do this with new energy. I also felt I’d accumulated so much institutional knowledge it would be a shame not to do this.”
The focus of the centre, which has around 60 academic members and staff as well as a group of research students, has historically been oil and gas but that has shifted over the past 10 years to environmental law and all other aspects of the energy transition. Collaborating across disciplines is key, Ms Shapovalova says, with the centre working alongside engineers, economists and social scientists to ensure the work it does is “inclusive and represents what society stands for” in terms of the response to the climate emergency. As a result her own research is now very much focused on the energy transition and trying to make sure that all the talk of a just transition translates into something tangible.
“I’ve been working not really on law but more on the role of law in facilitating this just transition and the critical appraisal of policy to make sure the transition is done in a way that the burdens and benefits are distributed fairly,” she says.
“We’re working on a project measuring the just transition in Aberdeen and shire. I get tired of all the talk about principles and high-level objectives. We all agree that the transition should be just – that’s not controversial. The disagreement comes when you ask what matters to the just transition – that’s where blurred and fuzzy visions come forward.
“Our project is not just focusing on skills and jobs but also workers’ rights, the economy, health and wellbeing, community development, adaptation to climate change. The SIMD [Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation] of Aberdeen is very blue [least deprived] and very red [most deprived]. If you drive from the airport through Dyce, along Great Northern Road and on to the west end it’s like two different cities. You can’t talk about the just transition only focusing on reskilling workers – you have to consider the impact on the wider community.”
This matters to Ms Shapovalova on a personal as well as professional level because, despite her initial misgivings on arriving in the Granite City, she says she now feels fully immersed in Aberdeen life.
“I’ve been reading a lot of the history of Aberdeen,” she says. “As part of my research I spent three months in the library reading through old city council reports and newspaper clippings. I feel really connected to the city. It wasn’t love at first sight but I’ve lived here for a third of my life and consider myself an honorary Scot. I’ve even taken up hill walking and trail running, as you do when you’re 30 and live in this neck of the woods.”
Yet while Ms Shapovalova is now at home in the North East, the situation in her homeland is a cause of huge concern, with life in Crimea now far tougher than it was when the region was first annexed by Russia in 2014. Her parents are still living there and, after Russia invaded Ukraine at the beginning of last year, she has been unable to return to see them. Though her life is in Scotland now, and her daughter is “a very Scottish child”, she lives with a constant fear that she might not make it back to see her family again.
“The last time I was in Crimea was the end of January 2022, two weeks before the war,” she says. “I wanted to show my daughter my home because she hadn’t been there since she was a tiny baby. It was a difficult journey – there are not normal border crossings and you have to drive on random roads with random taxi drivers – and it was also morally difficult but I wanted to show her where I went to school. It was a goodbye in a sense.
“We came back and then the war started. My parents are still there. It’s hard for them. They know they are welcome here or in Budapest, where my sister lives, but it’s very difficult for older people especially to move. They lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and they just want to stay. The house they live in my parents built themselves. We didn’t go on holiday when we were children because every bit of income went into that house. It was supposed to be an investment for our future.
“It’s very hard. There’s not a day when I don’t think about it. After so many months of war and years of occupation I became a bit desensitised to it but sometimes there are moments when I see a picture or hear a song and an emotional wave comes over me and I think ‘when can I go back with my daughter?’. It’s grief in a way.”