In Depth

Oleg Sokolov: historian pulled from river with lover’s arms in rucksack

Napoleon expert confesses to murder after being rescued from icy waters in St Petersburg

A Russian historian has admitted murdering his 24-year-old lover after he was pulled from a river with a backpack containing severed limbs.

Oleg Sokolov, a Napoleon expert who received France’s Legion of Honour in 2003, was reportedly drunk and fell into the Moika river in St Petersburg on Saturday. After passers-by came to his aid, his backpack was found to contain a woman’s arms, before police then found the decapitated body of Anastasia Yeshchenko at his home.

“He has admitted his guilt,” his lawyer Alexander Pochuyev told the AFP news agency, adding that Sokolov regretted what he had done and was now co-operating, the BBC says. The professor is due in court today.

As The Telegraph reports, the “grisly” incident has “sent shock waves across Russia”. Here’s a look at the details behind the crime.

Who is Oleg Sokolov?

Sokolov, born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1956, has taught at St Petersburg State University since 2000 and had reportedly developed a reputation among his students as a eccentric figure with an extremely detailed knowledge of Napoleonic history that bordered on obsession.

The BBC reports that he had a “glittering CV as a respected expert on French military history” and a fluent French speaker, and had been visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has also published a number of books on Napoleon.

“He was also a major figure in the world of historical re-enactment,” the broadcaster adds, adding that he occasionally “organised costume balls and picnics, as well as recreating battles”.

According to the Telegraph, students described him as both a “talented lecturer who could impersonate the French emperor” and as a “freak” who called his lover “Josephine” - the name of Napoleon’s first wife - and often asked to be addressed as “Sire”.

What happened this weekend?

Anastasia Yeshchenko, a 24-year-old former student of Sokolov’s, is understood to have been the professor’s lover. The pair had lived together and co-written works about Napoleon since her graduation in 2016.

The Times notes that one photograph that emerged at the weekend “shows the couple dancing in clothing from the Napoleonic era”.

On Thursday, Sokolov allegedly shot Yeshchenko during an argument, according to The Washington Post, which adds that he then “entertained guests the next day while her body laid behind a closed door”. After his guests left, Sokolov reportedly sawed off Yeshchenko’s head, arms and legs with an axe and put some of the remains in a backpack.

He then went to the Moika river and after attempting to dispose of the bag he either jumped in or was so drunk that he fell in. After being hauled from the river, police were called and they discovered of Yeshchenko’s severed arms. When officers went to Sokolov’s flat they found the mutilated body and severed head of Yeshchenko, as well as a bloodstained saw. He was arrested and admitted to hospital for treatment for hypothermia.

On Sunday, Sokolov confessed to the murder, claiming he had planned to dispose of Yeshchenko’s remains before publicly committing suicide on Sunday at Peter and Paul Fortress in the city, while dressed as Napoleon.

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What has the reaction been?

The reaction from the academic world has been one of shock and dismay. “I cannot get my head around it,” historian Ilya Kudryashov told The Guardian, while a colleague of Sokolov who asked to remain anonymous called the incident “simply monstrous”, noting that Sokolov had a reputation for being “emotionally unstable” and was known to frequently abuse alcohol.

The Times reports that Sokolov “had a history of violence towards students but that complaints were suppressed because of his connections to wealthy figures”. One incident involved a student accusing him of tying her up, beating her for over an hour and threatening to disfigure her with an iron after she ended a relationship with him. She accused police of ignoring her complaints.

Last year, Sokolov admitted that his friends had “beaten up a student who accused him of plagiarism at a lecture”, after which an ethics committee at St Petersburg University took no action.

Yevgeny Ponasenkov, a scholar familiar with Sokolov, said that he had raised concerns that Sokolov was “crazy” with the university but had been ignored. “If they had listened to me, she might still be alive,” he wrote on Facebook.

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