MOSCOW -- A prominent Russian Napoleon scholar has confessed to murdering and dismembering his young lover and former student after he was found in a canal in St. Petersburg with a rucksack containing her severed arms.
Police then visited Sokolov’s apartment where they found the decapitated body of Anastasia Yeshchenko, a 24-year-old former student at the university who had also co-authored several works on Napoleonic history with Sokolov and who was in a romantic relationship with him. Police believe Sokolov shot Yeshchenko and then sought to cover up the crime by disposing of her body. Local media reported he had been drunk while trying to throw away Yeshchenko's arms and had slipped into the water.
Sokolov appeared in a St. Petersburg's court on Monday for a pre-trial hearing, where he acknowledged shooting Yeshchenko four times with a sawn off small calibre rifle and then using a saw and kitchen knife to cut up her body to conceal the killing. Sokolov said he and Yeshchenko had been in a relationship since 2015 and that he had considered her his bride and had intended to propose to her soon, Russian news media reported.
The judge asked Sokolov why he had killed Yeshchenko. He replied that he had not wanted to, saying he had shot her after they quarrelled over his children from a former marriage and appeared to claim he had acted in self-defense.
"I said that on Saturday-Sunday she should spend time with the kids. She went crazy. After that this monstrous misfortune happened ... I have never seen such flood of aggression ... an attack with a knife ... The girl, who I believed to be ideal, suddenly turned into..." he said, according to the local news site, Fontanka.
Sokolov's lawyer interrupted, saying it was premature to discuss the details of the case. A break in the hearing was called after the historian broke down crying in the courtroom.
The judge ordered Sokolov held two months in detention ahead of his trial. His defense had requested he be placed under house arrest but Sokolov himself demanded to go to jail. He had been briefly hospitalized with hypothermia from the canal waters but by Monday had been signed off as healthy, his lawyer said.
Police have charged Sokolov with murder on a charge that carries six to 15 years in prison if he is convicted. His lawyer Alexander Pochuev told state media that his client had admitted to killing Yeshchenko and was fully cooperating with the investigation.
“He is completely remorseful," Pochuev told the TASS news agency, but added there were elements of the case with which the defense didn't agree.
Sokolov is one of Russia’s most prominent Napoleon experts and has lectured at Paris’ Sorbonne University. The author of several books on the French leader, in 2003 he was made a member of France’s Legion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest state honors.
Sokolov was also known for taking part in historical costumed re-enactments and was seen as one of the founders of the practice in Russia. Photos have been published widely showing him dressed up as Napoleon, holding a sword and at costume balls with Yeshchenko, who also took part in the re-enactments.
He had also at one time been a member of Russia’s Military-Historical Society, which is headed by Russia’s conservative culture minister, Vadim Medinsky. The society quickly removed Sokolov’s name from its website after his arrest and claimed he had never been a full member.
Accounts from his students posted on social media over the weekend portray Sokolov as a talented lecturer but who was also volatile, domineering and sometimes aggressive. “He was a superb specialist on the era of Napoleon. One of the best in Russia. Everyone viewed him as a freak, completely immersed in his subject,” Fyodor Danilov, one of Sokolov’s students told the St. Petersburg site Fontanka. “But no one thought he was capable of such a murder.”
But several others criticized the university, saying it had turned a blind eye to multiple examples of aggressive and inappropriate behavior by Sokolov. Evgeny Ponasenko, another Napoleon specialist who had a long-time feud with Sokolov, wrote on his Facebook wall that he had repeatedly warned the university about Sokolov and demanded that he be fired over allegations he had beaten up another female student.
"If they had listened to me, a person, most likely would still be alive. I appealed to the rector, to the director of the history institute! I WARNED that Sokolov was dangerous," Ponasenko wrote.
Sokolov was criticised by a university ethics committee in 2018 after an incident where a student supportive of Ponasenko was violently removed from one of Sokolov’s lectures, but no further steps were taken against him.
The murder has gripped Russia. On Monday, the Kremlin commented on it, with president Vladimir Putin's spokesman describing it as "a monstrous act of insanity".
Sokolov had also been a member at the French Institute of Social Science, Economics and Politics (ISSEP). The Lyon-based institute was founded by Marechal Le Pen, the niece of Marine Le Pen, the French far right leader who has sought closer ties with Russia. On Saturday, it announced it had removed Sokolov from its membership and issued a statement saying it was horrified by his crime.
Sokolov's arrest was also discussed by enthusiasts on Napoleonic re-enactment forums on Monday. One user, under the name "Royal Scot's Guard" wrote he had known Sokolov for 20 years and often spent time with him during re-enactments in Europe. But he said in recent years organizers outside of Russia had been wary of inviting Sokolov because of his heavy drinking.
"I knew Oleg well having shared many bivouacs with him over these last 20 years. He knew the life of the Grande Armée to perfection, all the songs of the soldiers. But his inordinate consumption of alcohol often spoilt the ends of parties! In Spain he was banned from the re-enactment for having killed a horse that we lent him and which he had been unable to master. That was Oleg! An eminent historian of the 1st Empire but tarnished by the reputation of a thug! I had suspected he would finish one day in misery or decimated by alcohol, but this has beaten all my predictions."