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Russia’s greatest Napoleonic re-enactor found drunk in a river with the severed arms of his lover in his backpack

  • Author: Will Englund, The Washington Post
  • Updated: November 11, 2019
  • Published November 10, 2019

FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012 file photo, Oleg Sokolov, a history professor at St. Petersburg State University, wears a 1812-era French army general's uniforms during a staged battle re-enactment to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Borodino which in 1812 was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the French invasion of Russia, in St.Petersburg, Russia. Police in the Russian city of St. Petersburg are planning to interrogate a prominent professor who has been detained on suspicion of killing a female student after being pulled from a frigid river on Saturday, Nov, 9, 2019 with a backpack containing severed arms. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File) (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

MOSCOW - Sunday was to have been the day of Oleg Sokolov’s spectacular suicide, in full Napoleonic costume, in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress across the Neva River from the Hermitage Museum.

Instead, having been fished out of the Moika River early Saturday morning with a backpack containing a woman's severed arms, he was in the Mariinsky Hospital, still very much alive, but recovering from hypothermia and facing a murder charge.

The 63-year-old Sokolov is an assistant professor of history and one of Russia's most prominent scholarly re-enactors of the Napoleonic wars. The arms in the backpack are thought to be those of one of his students, Anastasia Yeshchenko, 24, whose dismembered and decapitated body was found in Sokolov's apartment just a few houses down from where he was hauled out of the water, drenched and intoxicated, police said.

Sokolov's lawyer told the TASS news agency that he has confessed to the murder, a crime of St. Petersburgian passion that has parallels both to Dostoevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment" - the use of an ax - and to the 1916 assassination of the mad monk Grigori Rasputin, with its denouement in the city's dark interior waterways.

There might be a little bit of Edgar Allan Poe in there, too: Sokolov told investigators that he shot Yeshchenko in a fit of rage on Thursday, then entertained guests on Friday while her body lay in a room behind a closed door.

After they left he apparently decided to dismember and dispose of the remains. He told police the task made him physically ill, and he drank heavily to keep himself at it. He might have jumped into the Moika, which is shallow enough to stand in, when the backpack didn't sink, or he might have been so drunk that he toppled in accidentally. Both versions have been reported. In any case, he called out in anguish, and a passing taxi driver called police.

His plan, local news organizations reported, was to make his way to the Peter and Paul Fortress on Sunday, dressed as Napoleon himself, and romantically take his own life in front of gaping and undoubtedly awestruck tourists.

Fellow students said that Yeshchenko lived with Sokolov for some time but had recently moved out. Photos online show them dancing, she in an Empire style dress with white gloves up past her elbows, he in a glittering uniform decked with gold braid and a red sash, pulled tight around his evident paunch. He called her Isabelle, after one of the Bonapartes, and insisted she call him Sire.

They co-authored two scholarly historical articles on aspects of Napoleonic history.

Sokolov had been embroiled in a bitter plagiarism controversy with a professor from Moscow, and was accused of assaulting a student who challenged him during one of his lectures. His employer, St. Petersburg State University, stood by him in that incident.

Some of his former students described Sokolov to local news organizations as passionate, knowledgeable, unstable and temperamental. A student in Moscow accused him last year of tying her to a chair and threatening her with a hot iron.

One of St. Petersburg's more flamboyant journalists, Alexander Nekrasov, showed a photo on Instagram of a copy of one of Sokolov's books, on which the historian had written, "With the dedicatory inscription of a maniac."

Sokolov, a widower, told police Yeshchenko's criticism of his two grown daughters drove him to kill her - using a decidedly anachronistic sawed-off shotgun.

Yeshchenko’s mother, Lt. Col. Galina Yeshchenko, of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, arrived in St. Petersburg Sunday from her home in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, to arrange for the return of her daughter’s remains.