Mariana S Gustafsson was looking forward to starting a new collaborative project with a university in Ukraine. But the work barely got started before Russia's armed forces invaded the country. Now, she is worried about what will happen to her colleagues and the students affected.
“I consider them all to be my colleagues in an indirect sense, they're like my students. It is as if our students here at the university had ended up in the same situation. I met my colleague and the other project leaders just two weeks before this started. We met up in Tallinn, in Estonia, and talked about the future. We made lots of to-do lists. But we didn't even manage to get started.”
When I meet her at her office at LiU’s Campus Valla, it is the beginning of March. At that point, the fighting has been going on for almost a week. The news is flooded with pictures from a war-torn Ukraine. Pictures showing bombed buildings, people fleeing, people choosing to stay and fight for their country – and, among all this, a Swedish Prime Minister talking about Sweden's latest position in the dramatic developments in Europe. Alongside the battles, an information war is being fought, begging the questions of what is true, and what can be counted as an information war?
“There are so many thoughts swirling in my head. I’m also very afraid. I have a feeling of fear that I’ve never experienced previously in my life”, says Mariana S Gustafsson.
A new project
She has several years’ experience of collaborating with university colleagues and students in Ukraine. The latest project, EMDIAC (Embracing Digitalization in the Academia International Collaboration for Capacity Building and Innovation), is an exchange project based at Linköping University, and was started in January. It is aimed at developing digital tools in academia, both in teaching and administrative work. According to Mariana S Gustafsson, universities in Ukraine are behind on digitalisation. A lot is still done with paper and pen. EMDIAC is also intended to build strong connections for future research and collaboration.
The project is run in collaboration with Dnipro University of Technology, located in the eastern city with the same name, close to Luhansk and Donetsk — the two areas that the Russian president Vladimir Putin has recognised as independent.
Worried about her colleague
Mariana S Gustafsson has had a little contact her Dnipro-based colleague, who is the same age as her. By now, it has been several days since they last talked to each other. They talked on the phone for over two hours.
“I wanted to know how she was, but at the same time I was worried about taking up too much of her time. She was at home with her husband, and working on her projects and her research. It's very emotional when we talk to each other. It felt completely surreal We both cried.”
They're trying to maintain some kind of connection with the students, but it is very hard, naturally.
Mariana S Gustafsson gets to hear about the troubling developments that her colleague says she is forced to witness and deal with due to the war. One way in which her colleague copes is by continuing to work, thus giving her some feeling of normality, says Mariana:
“Despite everything that is going on, she has applied for funds for projects, and sent off an application. It is totally unbelievable that she’s managing to do it. She is also trying to do some remote teaching. Students who are able to attend lessons online, and talk with their teacher. Of course, everybody is mainly focussed on protecting themselves and mobilising, but she said that she has held three lectures. But there weren’t many students, of course. They're trying to maintain some kind of connection with the students, but it is very hard, naturally.”
The idea behind the project
EMDIAC came about as a continuation of the annual summer school that has taken place over the last five years within another project at LiU – SeGRID (Sustainable e-Government for Resilient and Innovative Democratic Public Administration). This project is about digitalisation too, but with more of a focus on public services and administration (e-administration). The two-week-long summer school, which before the pandemic was run at Linköping University, was aimed at people up to 35 years of age who live in the western Balkans as well as the Baltic Sea region. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar
The participants mainly worked in public administration or in politics. Thirty people have previously participated in SeGRID. They came from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, the Baltic States and Georgia. One of the participants was the colleague who Mariana S Gustafsson has now begun the EMDIAC project together with. The EMDIAC project is primarily aimed at researchers, vice-chancellors, PhD students and people in leadership positions.
“The participants come from both Ukraine and Belarus. But in reality, most of them are academics who have fled Belarus. They want to participate in EMDIAC to develop their courses. The idea is that they would come here and work several weeks and see how we teach our students.”
In Russia, people have very limited information sources
Both projects are funded by the Swedish Institute (SI), which announced in January that it would give funding of SEK two million towards the continuation of SeGRID and the founding of EMDIAC. Mariana S Gustafsson has recently been in contact with SI to find out about their future plans given the current situation in Ukraine.
“They think that we should continue our collaboration with our Ukrainian partners. They allow flexibility within our project, and recognise our professionalism, aims and expertise in working with these countries.”
The danger of propaganda
Because Mariana S Gustafsson’s research focusses on digitalisation within academia and public administration, she and her students use the internet as a source of information. She looks at, among other things, how digital technology can be used in a good way that benefits democracy. But she also sees the consequences of information being used to achieve other ends that are incompatible with democracy. For example, she is following discussions about the use of propaganda in connection to the war in Ukraine. As a political scientist, it is something that she has read a lot about.
“When you see what is happening in Ukraine, it is apparent that information is of vital importance for having an accurate view and understanding of the world. In Russia, people have very limited information sources. People mostly just watch state TV, and the media presents a very different reality to what we see today.”
She has personally followed a lot of independent media in Russia, but they are closely monitored by the state. Furthermore, a new law adopted by the Russian regime on 4 March means that journalists can get 15 years in prison if they call the war in Ukraine a war. Since then, ever more media sources have ceased their reporting in Russia. However, some try to continue spreading news via social media, says Marina S Gustafsson. She follows several of the students she has gotten to know on social media. Some of them are active and post now and again – others are quiet.
“I don't even know if they are alive.”