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True crime. Casually done.

Oleg Sokolov: The Worst Napoleon Complex Ever

Just Another Day in Russia

At 5 am on Saturday the 9th of November, the St Petersburg police received a call which is probably all too common out in that part of the world: a drunk guy had fallen into the river. The cops likely assumed it was to be another routine alcoholic fishing expedition, but they were about to net themselves a far bigger catch than some clumsy drunkard.

Officers arrived on the cobblestoned banks of the Moyka River, to find the man struggling listlessly in the frigid water below. After dragging him out, they took him to hospital for hypothermia — his hands and feet were frozen stiff, and he was barely responsive. A quick ID check revealed that the catch of the day was one Oleg Sokolov: an assistant professor of history at St Petersburg State University.

Oleg Sokolov by ANTROPOGENEZ.RU is licensed under CC-BY-SA

To get an idea of what the professor was doing freezing in the Moyka at 5 am, the cops took a look through the backpack he had been clutching onto. Inside they made a shocking discovery: a pair of severed human arms, cut off at the elbow.

The catatonic academic was immediately placed under arrest.

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Le Complexe de Napoléon

By all accounts, this Oleg Sokolov was an eccentric individual. A long-standing faculty member of the department of history, he was well-liked among students for his fiery, impassioned lectures. With his slightly unhinged delivery, an hour spent learning about French military history — his specialist subject — was far less dry than it ought to be. 

Over the course of a celebrated career of more than thirty years, he established himself as one of the leading scholars of Napoleonic studies. Professor Sokolov published more than a hundred academic pieces, and landed several guest teaching spots at the Sorbonne in Paris. 

Then, in 2003, he received France’s highest honor: the Légion d’Honneur (a medal established by his historical idol: Napoleon Bonaparte). For a lifelong fanboy of the French revolutionary-turned-dictator, that’s just about as good as it gets. 

Sokolov’s obsession with French history went further than the lecture room too; he was one of the most prominent battle re-enactors in Europe (it’s basically just like being in a real historic war, with zero casualties and far less dysentery). In 1976, he founded the first society for historic war reenactments, and went on to become president of the Federation of Military History Clubs of the USSR. 

More often than not, Napoleon’s biggest superfan would be suited up as the man himself at their meetups, bawling out orders in fluent French. His performances and pedantic eye for accuracy won him invitations to events around Europe, so he became a familiar face at some of the biggest meets on the continent. In the wild wild world of Napoleonic re-enactment, our man was as big as they come.

The only problem was, Sokolov never could quite get out of character. As author and prominent St Petersburger Lydia Nevzorova put it: “He thought he could do anything, and looked down on the world around him as if he really were Napoleon.”

Not only that, he was also known for whipping out his impression of the historic commander during everyday conversations, and regularly asked that his underlings in the history community address him as “sire”. In other words, the man was absolutely insufferable. 

An example of how much dictatorial power he held over his students and colleagues came in 2018. Partway through a lecture, a male student in the audience asked Sokolov about plagiarism allegations levied against him by a Moscow publicist. Instead of calmly denying the accusation, Sokolov went power mad: he ordered the other students to remove the dissident from his presence. 

Video from the day shows him shouting “Get out!” as some of the young guys in the audience seize their classmate, and drag him outside. The young man was then guillotined to death in the university courtyard. 

Not really, but he did receive a stiff beating from his peers for daring to question the great emperor of the lecture hall. That’s pretty much how I imagined academic freedom in Russia anyway, but it’s crazy to see it on tape nonetheless. 

Despite his tyrannical leanings, our 21st century Napoleon wasn’t all about war — he also made time for love…

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His Josephine

As we all know, historians possess sexual magnetism in abundance, and it’s the Napoleonic historians who get the most girls. Throughout his 19-year tenure in St Petersburg, it was a barely concealed secret that Sokolov had a thing for chasing young women (with considerable success). Extended monologues on the intricacies of 19th century battle strategies just have that effect on the ladies. 

Anastasia Yeshchenko first set eyes upon Sokolov during one of his lectures. At the time, she was a promising undergraduate student of history, who moved to St Petersburg from Krasnodar, in southern Russia. It’s not clear what first drew her to the aging Napoleon wannabe — a married man almost four decades her senior — but regardless, when she was 21, the two began a relationship.

Sokolov started calling her his “Josephine”: a reference to Napoleon’s wife. He treated his young mistress to a whirlwind initiation to the world of academia, introducing her to colleagues and famous names in the field. To an aspiring historian at the start of her career, it must have seemed too good to be true.

By the time she was a postgraduate in 2019, they had already been a couple for almost four years. Now they could afford to be less secretive, on account of Sokolov’s second divorce the year before. So Yeshchenko — now 24 years old to Sokolov’s 63 — moved out of her university accommodation and into her lover’s luxury flat on the Moyka River. The two planned on getting married in 2020. 

Despite the age gap, they seemed a good match on the face of things. Yeshchenko shared Sokolov’s passion for French history, and even co-authored some academic pieces with him. He introduced her (or maybe forced her) into the re-enactment scene, and together they hosted balls and picnics, where everyone dressed in period costume.

I can only hope for everyone involved that old Oleg left his Napoleon act out of the bedroom. At the very least drop the bugles…

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If you’re feeling a bit off about the idea of a professor in his sixties leveraging his status to seduce someone barely out of high school, I’m right there with you. And as I mentioned, this wasn’t the first time he had done it. 

Anastasia Yeshchenko was at least his second long-term Josephine. The pervy professor apparently made a regular habit of scanning the freshman lecture halls for any beautiful young women with brown hair; the more they looked like Napoleon’s missus, the better. He would approach them after class, and try his best to impress them with his academic credentials and hefty salary.

Although the university administration just chalked all this up to the good professor’s “eccentricities”, many of the young women saw it differently. He had racked up a fair number of complaints throughout the years for his inappropriate advances.

The most shocking allegation saw one of his ex-partners go to the police. Ekaterina Ivanova was Josephine #1, who back in 2008 discovered that her new boyfriend was actually married with kids. When she went to break up with him at his flat, he first acted calm, then suddenly leapt on her in a fury. He tied the terrified Ekaterina to a chair, beat her, strangled her, then threatened to scar her face with a hot iron!

So of course the police and university… did absolutely nothing. Everyone just treated it like an everyday lover’s spat and life went on. It might sound mad, but that kind of impunity was a recurring theme throughout the megalomaniac professor’s tenure.

Not unlike his historic idol, Sokolov would start off as charming and benevolent, before turning into a controlling tyrant. Which brings us to the incident at the heart of the story.

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In the early hours of the 8th of November 2019, Anastasia Yeshchenko called her brother: her partner Sokolov had grown jealous when a friend invited her to a birthday party, resulting in a vicious argument. The old gentleman was worried about the idea of her attending a normal, modern party with younger, better-looking guys (and not a petticoat in sight).

Anastasia decided to back down, and agreed not to go. At first, she planned on getting a bed at a hostel until Sokolov calmed down, but at around 1:30am, she called back to let her brother know the two had made peace.

That was the last time any of her family would ever hear her voice…

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The Emperor’s Downfall

The Arrest

Oleg Sokolov in jail
Oleg Sokolov in jail. Source: https://www.voanews.com/

Now, this ain’t no Unsolved Mysteries; there aren’t any prizes for guessing who the arms in the bag belonged to. At the time Sokolov was found floundering around in the river, Anastasia was already dead. 

When the authorities searched Sokolov’s apartment, they found her brutally dismembered torso in one of the bedrooms. A bloody hacksaw was sitting on the floor nearby, along with a gun, axe, and ammunition. A stun pistol was also tucked in the bag, alongside the arms.

It would be a few days yet before the police recovered Anastasia’s legs, which had been wrapped up separately and tossed into the river, by which time Sokolov had fully recovered from his little swimming session. He had quite a bit of explaining to do.

Police now had CCTV footage of him walking to the embankment on the river’s edge, and throwing several bags over a wall. The legs had apparently sunk to the riverbed as he intended, but no such luck with the arms. The professor panicked when he saw the second bag bob back up to the surface. He went to retrieve it, but was so smashed that he ended up falling in completely. 

Just like 200 years before, it was the chilly Russian weather which was Napoleon’s undoing: Sokolov was so cold (and hammered), he couldn’t get out of the river by himself, so just had to wait to be rescued, clutching his gory cargo. 

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The Murder

They had caught him red handed, but the motive for the murder was still a mystery. Sokolov was a known physical abuser — a crime which is often overlooked in Russia — and CCTV footage showed Anastasia running out not the freezing streets on the night of her death. She wasn’t wearing a jacket despite the freezing temperature, and was evidently distressed. Was it possible that Sokolov had accidentally killed Anastasia in a rage?

Well, to hear him tell it, it was all self defense. Apparently, Anastasia became hysterical when he told her he would have to spend time with his kids that weekend. During the shouting match, she rushed at him with a knife, forcing him to protect himself… by waiting until she was asleep, and shooting her in the head four times with a sawn-off hunting rifle. Seems proportionate. 

The post-mortem revealed the sheer malice of the act. The first shot to the face apparently failed to kill her, so Sokolov tried to strangle the young woman to death, breaking her neck in the process. What eventually finished the job, were the three further shots to the skull, for which Sokolov had to reload multiple times. 

As you might have guessed, Anastasia’s supposed knife attack most likely never happened. Thanks to the phone call, her brother was able to shed light on the real reason for their argument — the old man’s jealousy. According to the prosecution, while Anastasia was making that phone call, Sokolov was Googling the spots along the Moyka where he later dumped the body parts. 

At any rate, if he really believed he was acting in self defense, there’s surely no way he would have done what followed. Perhaps to put on a performance of normality, Sokolov decided to invite some friends around for a party that Friday night. The guests drank with him until the early morning, completely unaware that the corpse of a young student was locked away in the spare room.

After all his guests had left, he got to work with the hacksaw. Sokolov severed Anastasia’s limbs and neck. He bagged up the arms and legs, while leaving the head on the floor of the bedroom. After that  he went outside, and tossed her phone into the Moyka River, then went about trying to throw the body pieces in as well (along with the stun gun, which was conveniently absent from his self defense narrative).

Sokolov’s plan was to do away with all the pieces, then end his life as theatrically as he had lived it: by dressing up in his full Napoleon outfit, and killing himself outside of St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress. I like to think he’d have used a naval cannon, for a bit of added flair. 

But the bumbling emperor never got to see his grand exit through. Undeterred, he decided to give it a second crack later on. Flanked by officers in bulletproof vests, Sokolov was taken back to his apartment to take part in a very different kind of re-enactment than he was used to; he was supposed to walk the police through each step of the killing. 

Once inside, he rushed to a cabinet full of antique knives, grabbed a dagger, and tried to stab himself. Again, no luck: the police restrained him before he could do any damage, and took him back to jail safe and well.

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The Trial

So in June 2020, the emperor was dragged in chains to the St Petersburg City Court. The prosecutors were pursuing a 15-year sentence, while Sokolov’s defense team petitioned for half that amount. 

Acquittal was out of the question, since he had never denied his guilt, accepting that he had shot and dismembered his former lover. As Sokolov put it before the judge: “I killed her and myself too. I do not exist. My cherished memory of Anastasia is the most important thing for me now.”

But apparently her memory wasn’t worth all that much to him, because he was willing to drag it through the dirt in the hope of a reduced sentence. Before the initial hearings, Sokolov’s defense lawyer Aleksandr Pochuyev hinted at a plea of temporary insanity, brought on by alcohol, jealousy, and harassment from an academic rival. 

Oh, of course — understandable. Who among us hasn’t killed and dismembered a lover because of a bit of work stress and vodka? In the end though, they settled on self-defense. The argument went a bit like this: Sokolov admitted to killing his girlfriend, but added that — well — she deserved it. I mean he obviously never used those words, but he might as well have!

A hysterically weeping Sokolov told the court how Anastasia “gradually turned into a beast from a scary fairytale” after they moved in together. The last straw was when she flew into a maniacal rage that night: “I have never seen such a stream of aggression,” he said. No Oleg? You don’t think your own little stream of aggression might have raised the bar a little?

This kind of victim blaming tactic is far more successful in Russian courts than you’d like to think; husbands often get away with violence against their wives by claiming that they were hysterical or aggressive at the time. But thankfully, that was just a bit too much of a stretch in this instance. 

Four rifle blasts to the head could legally only be classed as self defense if Anastasia was an actual T-500 Terminator. Analysis revealed that she was in fact not a robotic menace from the future, so on Christmas Day 2020, Oleg Sokolov was convicted of intentional murder and weapons possession, and sentenced to 12 and a half years behind bars.

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Wrap-up

That concludes the story of the rise and fall of one of St Petersburg’s strangest murderers: a man who held such power over his own little world that he thought himself as mighty as Napoleon himself. But how was he allowed to exert his wicked will on his students for so many years before finally being toppled?

A petition was launched shortly after the murder demanding answers from the university. They simply denied any complaints had ever been made against the senior lecturer, and buried their heads in the sand. In fact, every organization he was involved with scrambled to scrub his name from their websites, preferring to pretend Sokolov never existed at all. Because really, plenty of people knew what he was doing over the years, and knew what he was capable of: like a Russian Weinstein in a silly admiral’s outfit.

Unfortunately, the tragic end of Anastasia’s story is all too common in Russia: some estimates put the domestic violence murder rate at one every 40 minutes! In recent years, relaxed sentences for domestic violence, and increased ones for false reporting (which might well be used to deter genuine reports), suggest things might only get worse from here. 

The challenge for women’s advocates in Russia is to root out people like Sokolov before they end up as killers, and demand the system tip the scales back in the favor of the victims. It’s a tough fight, but a worthy one for sure. 

Vive la revolution.

Dismembered Appendices

1. While awaiting trial in prison, Sokolov spent his free time writing a novel, offering the prison guards a 50% cut if they gave him a computer (which they did not). What was it about? His secondary specialist subject: love. Thankfully the book cannot be published without the consent of the victim’s family, meaning it’ll probably never see the light of day.

2. Early on I mentioned that historic battle reenactments have zero casualties, but that’s not always the case. In 1982, Sokolov was involved in another investigation into the death of a reenactment club member. No, Sokolov didn’t flip and bayonet an Englishman to death — he and others were actually just sentenced to two years of probation for criminal negligence, when a frigate ship sank while preparing for a film shoot, killing the teenager.

Credits

Oleg Sokolov Оле́г Вале́рьевич Соколо́в by ANTROPOGENEZ.RU is licenced under CC-BY-SA

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