A renowned Saint Petersburg-based Napoleon expert has confessed to murdering his young lover and former student and dismembering her body in a grisly crime that sent shock waves across Russia.
Oleg Sokolov, a 63-year-old history lecturer who received France’s Legion d’Honneur from Jacques Chirac in 2003, was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of murder after he was hauled out of the icy Moika River with a backpack containing a woman’s arms.
“He has admitted his guilt,” Sokolov’s lawyer Alexander Pochuev told AFP, adding he regretted what he had done and was cooperating.
A court on Monday will decide whether to arrest the historian, who was being treated for hypothermia in a hospital.
Sokolov was reportedly drunk and fell into the Moika, a tributary of the Neva, in central Saint Petersburg as he tried to dispose of body parts near the offices of investigators.
After disposing of the corpse he reportedly planned to commit suicide at the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the former imperial capital’s most famous landmarks, dressed as Napoleon.
Sokolov teaches history at Saint Petersburg State University, President Vladimir Putin’s alma mater, and was close to the Russian authorities.
He told investigators that he shot and killed his lover during an argument and then sawed off her head, arms and legs, media reported.
Pochuev suggested Sokolov may have been under stress or emotionally disturbed.
“He is an elderly person,” he said.
Police discovered the decapitated body of Anastasia Yeshchenko, 24, with whom Sokolov had co-authored a number of works, and a blood-stained saw at his home.
The historian, who also taught at the Sorbonne, is the author of books on French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
He acted as a consultant on several films and took part in historical re-enactments of Napoleonic wars.
Both he and his lover studied French history and liked to wear period costumes, with Sokolov dressing up as Napoleon.
Students described Sokolov as both a talented lecturer who could impersonate the French emperor and his generals and a “freak” who called his lover “Josephine” and liked to be addressed as “Sire”.
Many expressed dismay, saying Sokolov had long been known for his hostile behaviour but officials had ignored complaints.
Vasily Kunin, who studied with the victim, blamed university management.
“They did not pay attention to certain things,” he told AFP.
“There was a policy of hushing things up.”
Media said that Sokolov also beat up and threatened to burn with a hot iron and kill another female student in 2008 but was never charged.
More than 800 people have signed a petition calling on authorities to punish the Saint Petersburg State University leadership.
“What happened is simply monstrous,” a Saint Petersburg State University lecturer told AFP.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Sokolov was dedicated to his work but was also emotionally unstable and abused alcohol.
Screenwriter Andrew Ryvkin said Sokolov was one of his lecturers, describing the Saint Petersburg-based university as a place where “alcoholics” and “anti-Semites” felt at ease.
But some people who have known the lecturer for years said they were flabbergasted and at a loss to explain the tragedy.
“I cannot get my head around it,” historian Ilya Kudryashov told AFP.
“It’s unclear how this could have happened.”
Kudryashov cautioned people against jumping to conclusions.
His former student, Fyodor Danilov, said Sokolov was regarded as one of the university’s best lecturers but also an eccentric man who at times yelled in French.
A spokeswoman for the Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honour, speaking to AFP, indicated that Sokolov might be stripped of his award.
The final decision rests with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Sokolov was a senior member of the Russian Military-Historical Society headed by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
The organisation immediately sought to distance itself from the controversy.
Sokolov was also a member of Lyon-based Institute of Social Science, Economics and Politics (ISSEP), which announced Saturday that he had been stripped of his position on its scientific committee.
ISSEP was founded by Marion Marechal, the niece of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party.