MOSCOW — In battlefield reenactments, he played Napoleon. And it was as Napoleon that he planned to die, reports said, killing himself in full costume in front of tourists at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.
If that was the plan, Oleg Sokolov never got that far. On November 9, police pulled the 63-year-old history professor and Napoleon buff out of the Moika River and drove him to the hospital with hypothermia.
In his backpack, investigators said, they found two severed arms and a gun. Back at his apartment, the headless, limbless body of the victim — Sokolov’s former student Anastasia Yeshchenko, 24 — was discovered near a blood-spattered saw.
In St. Petersburg, across Russia, and beyond, Yeshchenko’s gruesome killing captured public attention like the celebrated fiction plots of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the author of Crime And Punishment, and other writers focused on the former imperial capital.
It also appeared to be a grim and glaring example of the persistent problem of domestic abuse and violence against women in Russia, where activists say victims are far from adequately protected by the law.
And it was a feast for the tabloids in Russia: the grisly killing of a woman in a reportedly secret but turbulent relationship with a teacher nearly 40 years her senior.
Sokolov and Yeshchenko, who came to St. Petersburg from a rural town in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region several years ago to study, had been a couple, according to the suspect and friends and relatives of the victim.
“She fell in love with him during the first lecture,” the mass-circulation daily Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted an unnamed person identified as a friend of Yeshchenko’s as saying. “They hid their love, but everyone could guess.”
Confessing to her killing in court on November 11, Sokolov — looking disheveled and dejected but alert in images posted online by the press service of the St. Petersburg courts — said he shot Yeshchenko during an argument on November 7 and began trying to dispose of her body two days later.
Sokolov told the court that he and Yeshchenko had been in a relationship for five years and “loved each other very strongly” but had argued over his children from another relationship, according to the Interfax news agency. He said they both “lost control,” claiming that she attacked him with a knife and stating that he shot her four times with a sawn-off rifle.
“I repent,” he said.
The court ordered Sokolov jailed in pretrial detention for an extendable period of two months on suspicion of murder, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. His defense team will argue that his actions were provoked by Yeshchenko’s intense jealousy, according to lawyer Aleksandr Pochuyev.
“If such a heinous crime, which my client has confessed to, did take place, it was committed under the influence of strong factors — possibly pathologic intoxication or temporary insanity,” Pochuyev said.
The killing and confession marked the instantaneous and shocking demise for a man considered perhaps Russia’s foremost historian of Napoleonic France — but one who had been accused of violence in the past and had faced criticism from current and former students.
In 2008, another student with whom Sokolov was allegedly in a relationship filed a complaint to Russian police alleging domestic violence on his part, including tying her to a chair, beating her, and holding a hot iron close to her face, according to the text of the document published last year by tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. Its authenticity could not be confirmed.
In April 2018, the commission on ethics at St. Petersburg State University ruled that Sokolov had acted unethically when he ordered two students who accused him of plagiarism during a lecture to be taken out of the hall. A video of the incident posted online shows one of the students being dragged out of the room in a headlock.
Sokolov was dismissed on November 11 from the university, where he had taught in the history department since 2000. According to his online profile at the faculty of Modern and Current History, he completed a PhD dissertation in 1991 on the officer corps of the French Army during the French Revolution.
In the intervening years he became a leading expert on Franco-Russian relations. Many of his lectures have been recorded and posted online, revealing a man passionate about his topic, fluent in French, and prone to stepping into the roles of the historical figures he discussed.
A veteran participant in historical reconstructions, Sokolov created in 1976 the first reenactment troupe in the Soviet Union. He has participated in various events ever since, in Russia and abroad, often playing the part of Napoleon himself.
“For me, Napoleon represents the ideal of a statesman,” Sokolov, then 32, told French TV in a 1988 report on Russia’s nascent historical reconstruction movement.
In 2003, Sokolov was awarded the Order of Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest civilian decoration, by then-President Jacques Chirac. He completed several teaching stints at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Amid news of his arrest, France’s Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Sciences announced it was dismissing Sokolov from its scientific council.
“We learn with horror through the press about the atrocious crime of which Oleg Sokolov is allegedly guilty,” the institute wrote on Twitter. “We could never imagine that he could commit such an odious act.”
Russian media reports suggested Sokolov was also a highly placed member of the Russian Military-Historical Society, a government-backed body run by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. The society has been quick to distance itself from Sokolov since Yeshchenko’s killing.
According to media reports and statements from friends and relatives of the suspect and victim, Sokolov had left his apartment late on November 9 to deposit a bag containing body parts in the Moika River, part of the network of waterways that runs through St. Petersburg. He jumped in the water when he realized that the bag had floated to its surface.”
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Yeshchenko’s brother Sergei told the Russian media outlet RBK that he had spoken to his sister not long before her killing and believes Sokolov murdered her out of jealousy for her attention.
“She said she planned to attend a birthday party for a friend from her student circle. He beat her, and she left, but returned later,” Sergei Yeshchenko was quoted as saying. “In the end”, he said, Sokolov “lost his head with jealousy.”