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‘She turned into a monster’ The St. Petersburg historian who murdered and dismembered his former student has his first day in court

Source: Meduza
Olga Maltseva / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On November 9, police in St. Petersburg removed 63-year-old historian Oleg Sokolov from the Moyka River. He was found alive and carrying a backpack that contained two severed, apparently women’s hands. The body parts, it turns out, belonged to a Anastasia Eshchenko, a 24-year-old former student who lived with Sokolov as his fiancée. The St. Petersburg State University senior lecturer has confessed to murdering her, and on November 11 a court jailed him for two months, as investigators prepare their case against him. Meduza attended the first day of his trial.

“They say everything in this story is clear, but investigators are only beginning their work, and everything is far from clear,” said Alexander Pochuev, Oleg Sokolov’s defense attorney, at the start of the trial. The lawyer noted that his client’s confession doesn’t rule out the possibility of self-incrimination, but he didn't explain why Sokolov might have needed to incriminate himself.

The hearing at St. Petersburg’s Oktyabrsky District Court to determine Sokolov’s pretrial detention got underway around 3 p.m. Oleg Sokolov took his seat inside the courtroom’s glass cage, looking absolutely lost. From time to time, the heavyset historian blew his nose loudly into a handkerchief. He caught a cold while floundering in the Moyka River, where he was caught on November 9 carrying two severed hands. Almost as soon as the proceedings got underway, he buried his face in his hands and started wailing, delaying the hearing for a couple of minutes.

“Pull yourself together. I understand that this is a stressful situation for you, but believe me that it’s no less stressful for the rest of us here. We’re all adults, and we have to continue to work somehow,” Judge Yulia Maksimenko told Sokolov sternly.

“Please, carry on,” the historian answered meekly.

Sokolov started weeping again several times, for example, when an investigator monotonously read from case records that Sokolov killed his former student, Anastasia Eshchenko, who lived with him, with four gunshots, before dismembering her body and discarding the remains in the Moyka River.

Sokolov’s attorney did his best to protect his client from the news media, asking the judge to close the trial to the public or at least prohibit journalists from recording audio in the courtroom, but Judge Maksimenko rejected both requests. Sokolov said he was also worried that information from the trial “would reach the Internet today.”

After he failed to get the trial closed to outsiders, Pochuev asked the court to hear testimony from Veronika Karagodina, one of Sokolov’s oldest acquaintances. In a short speech, Karagodina said she’s known Sokolov since the 1990s, when she worked at the “Lenfilm” film studio. 

“Mr. Sokolov was a consultant for one of the directors. I was struck by the scale of his personality, his vast knowledge of history and culture, and his intention to make the world a better place,” Karagodina said. “At the time, he led a group of like-minded people who used their own money to sew uniforms and reconstruct battles between the Russian and Napoleonic armies, and this was enormously educational work. What’s happened [now] seems to me to be a misunderstanding. It’s hard to believe this.”

Police evidence from the case against historian Oleg Sokolov

Having already confessed to the murder, Sokolov stressed in court that he deeply regrets the crime and is “shocked that this could have happened.” He also said that he agrees with the prosecution’s request to jail him, though his own lawyer requested house arrest instead of a pretrial detention center. “We believe it would be inhumane to hold Mr. Sokolov with prior felons on a prison diet,” Pochuev told the judge.

When Sokolov said again that he feels remorse for his actions, Judge Maksimenko asked him about his motives for killing Ms. Eshchenko. In a trembling voice, the historian said he’d lived with her for the past five years, and started introducing her to his friends this August as his fiancée. Sokolov claims that they loved each other very much and planned to get married, but the relationship later began falling apart. She supposedly “was infuriated” at the mention of his young daughters from his ex-wife. “What I thought was the perfect woman transformed into a monster from some horror story,” Sokolov told the court.

On the day of the murder, Sokolov says he met Eshchenko with flowers and champagne, and everything was supposedly going well, until he mentioned his children (Eshchenko’s brother says Sokolov actually started the fight in a jealous rage). “From there, we lost control of ourselves. It’s unimaginable. I’d never seen such an outburst of aggression,” Sokolov said, also mentioning a “knife attack.” When the judge asked him to clarify if he was accusing Eshchenko of attacking him with a knife before her death, Sokolov’s attorney didn’t let him respond. Both sides then agreed that this issue would be addressed in further inquiries. 

Oleg Sokolov called the killing itself “a monstrous disaster.”

Around 4 p.m., the judge retired to her chambers and returned about an hour later to announce that the historian would be jailed for at least two more months, until January 9, 2020. Maksimenko stressed that Sokolov, who often lectures abroad, posed a flight risk and might try to destroy evidence, if he were allowed home. Sokolov did not object to the ruling. 

After the hearing, St. Petersburg State University announced Sokolov’s dismissal from the school’s history department. “The university is shocked by this monstrous crime,” spokespeople said in a statement.

At the same time, several demonstrators staged one-person pickets in the center of St. Petersburg, criticizing the university and city officials for failing to fire Sokolov sooner, after complaints by other students. For example, one of the historian’s former students says he brutally assaulted her in 2008, when they were also involved romantically. The allegations never went to court, she says, because she lacked “the strength and capacity” to file a lawsuit.

These accusations became public in early 2018, when a video emerged showing a student at one of Sokolov’s lectures asking him about a conflict with Moscow publicist Evgeny Ponosenkov, who accuses Sokolov of plagiarism. In the footage, Sokolov tells the student, “Get out of here!” and the young man is promptly dragged out of the room. A university commission later stated that the published video was doctored, but officials acknowledged that Sokolov violated the school’s “audience ethics.” Afterwards, several news outlets published stories about Sokolov’s “strange behavior,” including the allegations that he beat a woman student in 2008 (reported in detail by the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets). 

Following Anastasia Eshchenko’s murder, another of Sokolov’s former students revealed on Twitter that he, too, had filed a complaint with the university, requesting the historian’s removal on the grounds that he “sometimes behaved inappropriately.” These complaints apparently had no consequences for Sokolov.

Story by Pavel Merzlikin, reporting from St. Petersburg

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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