MOSCOW — Oleg Sokolov, a Russian historian who made a career studying and impersonating Napoleon Bonaparte, liked to be called Sire. He also had a long history of seducing and being violent toward female students at a prestigious university.
“He thought he could do anything and looked down on the world around him as if he really were Napoleon,” said Lydia Nevzorova, the wife of a prominent Russian television personality who met Sokolov socially in St. Petersburg, Russia’s imperial-era capital.
On Monday, however, the once haughty Sokolov, 63, sobbed uncontrollably as he appeared in a St. Petersburg court to express “deep repentance” for killing and dismembering his 24-year-old student and lover, Anastasia Yeshchenko. “I am devastated,” he said.
On Saturday, Sokolov was fished out of the frigid Moika River in St. Petersburg — he had fallen in, drunk — along with a backpack containing Yeshchenko’s arms. A search of his apartment uncovered her decapitated corpse, and local news media said he had planned to dispose of his victim’s body parts in the river and then commit suicide, dressed as Napoleon, outside a St. Petersburg fortress.
The gruesome sagahas commanded huge attention in Russia as a tale of crime and impunity.
As former fans, including members of a military history society sponsored by the Kremlin, scrambled to distance themselves from Sokolov, Russia grappled with a troubling question: How did a man dogged for years by detailed accusations of violent bullying manage to keep his job as an assistant professor at St. Petersburg University, President Vladimir Putin’s alma mater and one of Russia’s most prestigious academic institutions?
An online petition collected more than 20,000 signatures within minutes Monday from Russians outraged that Sokolov had not been held to account earlier for his history of abuse. The petition demanded that university authorities be punished for failing to act on earlier complaints against him.
These include a 2008 complaint by another female student turned lover, E.V. Ivanova, who detailed how Sokolov, furious that she wanted to end their relationship, had tied her to a chair in a rented Moscow apartment, beaten her repeatedly and threatened to disfigure her with a hot iron. She escaped and reported what she described as a murder attempt to the authorities. Nothing was done.
Asked Monday about the murder in St. Petersburg, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the president had been informed about what he described as “this mad case.” Peskov said that “it looks like insanity,” adding that it was now up to investigators to determine whether anyone other than Sokolov was to blame.
Many others, however, are blaming a law-enforcement system that cracks down hard and swiftly on political opponents of the president but moves sluggishly, if at all, in response to reports of violence against women and other crimes.
Alena Popova, a Russian campaigner against domestic violence, said in an angry statement posted on Facebook that Yeshchenko would not have been killed if Sokolov had previously been held responsible.
“If an abuser is certain that he can do everything, that ‘they will get him off even for murder,’ he will go berserk. We must not wait until a victim is killed, but prevent violence,” Popova said.
There was also outrage over reports that Sokolov’s lawyer, Alexander Pochuyev, wanted to get his client to plead temporary insanity, which could limit his time in jail to three years — less than the sentence recently handed down against a middle-age Muscovite convicted of taking part in an illegal protest against Putin.
The lawyer told Interfax, a Russian news agency, that Sokolov had confessed to murder but had killed his student “under some sort of strong influence.”
In a brief court appearance Monday, however, Sokolov indicated that he would claim self-defense, not insanity. The court ordered that he be held in custody until January.
Fontanka, a St. Petersburg news site, reported that the historian told the court that Yeshchenko, with whom he had lived for several years and had written articles about Napoleon, had flown into a rage after being told that Sokolov would need to spend the weekend with his children.
“I have never seen such a stream of aggression,” he said, referring to an alleged “attack with a knife.”
Russian police officers and judges are often sympathetic to claims by men accused of abuse that they were provoked into violence by their girlfriends or wives.
Despairing of their country’s own legal system, in recent months Russian women have increasingly turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The court, in its first such decision, this summer ruled in favor of a Russian woman, Valeriya Volodina, who had complained that police officers repeatedly ignored her pleas for protection from a violent former boyfriend.
The Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI, released a video Monday that showed a man said to be Sokolov crossing a dark street with a garbage bag containing some of Yeschchenko’s remains and then tossing it into the river.
It also showed his apartment — filled with books, old military uniforms and other Napoleonic paraphernalia — and a sawed-off shotgun found there, which is believed to have been used to kill her.
Sokolov has been accused of violence against male students, too. When a student asked him during a public lecture last year about plagiarism claims by a rival Napoleon expert, the historian ordered burly young men in the audience to drag the questioner from the lecture hall. The student said he was beaten and complained to the university, which declined to discipline Sokolov.
After surviving years of scandal, however, Sokolov, who was awarded France’s Legion of Honor in 2003, has now been abandoned by even his strongest supporters.
The Russian Military Historical Society, headed by Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, removed Sokolov from its scientific council. The society, created by a Kremlin order in 2012, has played a leading role in a promoting a nationalistic — and, critics say, highly slanted — version of Russian history.
A French organization founded by a far-right politician, Marion Maréchal, a former member of Parliament and the niece of Marine Le Pen, the right-wing nationalist leader, announced over the weekend that Sokolov had been stripped of his membership of its own scientific committee. The organization, the Institute of Social Science, Economics and Politics, was set up in 2018 by Maréchel, who visited St. Petersburg earlier this year to explore cooperation with Sokolov’s university.
Nevzorova said she was not qualified to judge whether the historian was medically insane but added that he had always struck her as very strange and at times seemed to believe that he really was Napoleon.
“The dividing line between Napoleon and Sokolov disappeared a long time ago,” she said. “How did such a person keep his position? Who has been protecting him and why?”