‘Everybody at the school knew’ The St. Petersburg university that employed the historian who dismembered his grad student girlfriend denies past complaints about other sexual assaults
On November 9, police pulled 63-year-old historian and St. Petersburg State University senior lecturer Oleg Sokolov from the Moyka River. He was alive, but the same could not be said for Anastasia Eshchenko, a 24-year-old graduate student who lived with Sokolov as his fiancée. Officials soon realized that he had murdered her and dismembered her body. When he was discovered in the river, Sokolov was carrying a backpack that contained the woman’s severed hands. On November 11, a court formally jailed the historian, and St. Petersburg State University quickly announced his dismissal. Many are angry, however, that the school didn’t act sooner. A petition at Change.org now has more than 72,000 signatures demanding punishment for the university officials who failed to take action against Sokolov, despite apparent allegations against him. In St. Petersburg, demonstrators have also staged isolated pickets with the same demands. The historian’s colleagues say the school was aware of his multiple romances with students, but they say there were no grounds to fire Sokolov, because no one ever filed a formal complaint against him.
More than 71,000 people have signed a petition demanding punishment for St. Petersburg State University administrators
The petition, “A St. Petersburg State University Student Has Been Killed: Remove and Hold the University’s Leadership Accountable,” was launched at Change.org on November 9. At the time of this writing, it has more than 72,000 signatures.
According to the petition, Oleg Sokolov was accused of violence against women well before he murdered Anastasia Eshchenko. One anonymous university student says he brutally beat her in 2008, when the two were involved romantically. According to the woman, Sokolov tied her to a chair and beat her face and stomach, and also threatened to kill her. She filed a police report, but the case never went to trial, she says, because she “lacked the strength and capacity.”
This story only became public knowledge 10 years later, in early 2018, when Sokolov found himself at the center of another scandal, after a video appeared online recorded at one of his lectures. In the footage, a student asks him about plagiarism allegations by Moscow publicist Evgeny Ponasenkov, and Sokolov responds, “Get out!” at which point the young man is dragged from the room. The school’s ethics commission later determined that the historian’s behavior was inappropriate and says it carried out unspecified “disciplinary actions,” but the incident had no serious consequences for Sokolov.
After the video spread online, the university started receiving letters demanding Sokolov’s dismissal for “stealing scholarly concepts, beating students at lectures, and attempted murders.” Several media outlets published stories about Sokolov’s bizarre behavior, including the allegations (reported in detail by Moskovsky Komsomolets) from 2008 that he beat a female student. Journalists did not identify the woman, and sources tell Meduza that she now lives abroad.
The November 2019 Change.org petition calls Sokolov a rapist, arguing that university officials should be held accountable for the fact that he retained his position for several years, despite his actions. Specifically, the petition demands that the school fire Rector Nikolai Kropachev, History Institute Director Abdullah Daudov, Deputy Security Rector Elena Sharygin, and First Vice-Rector Elena Chernova.
The petition also calls for an audit of the Petrograd District police station that received the assault report against Sokolov in 2008. Sources close to St. Petersburg law enforcement told Meduza, however, that the case was transferred to officials in Moscow, where the alleged attack took place (Sokolov was a visiting scholar at the time).
On November 12, 2019, a day after Sokolov’s arrest for Anastasia Eshchenko's murder, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin ordered his agency’s St. Petersburg division to verify the reports about the 2008 incident.
In addition to the petition and the accusations against the university’s administration, Sokolov’s case has also led to isolated street demonstrations. On November 11 in downtown St. Petersburg, activists staged a single-person picket against the university’s administration and city officials, arguing that Sokolov should have been dismissed sooner. St. Petersburg State University has declined to comment directly on either the petition or the demonstrations.
St. Petersburg State University says students filed no previous complaints against Oleg Sokolov
On the evening of November 11, after Sokolov’s arraignment, St. Petersburg State University issued a formal statement regarding his case, promising that the historian will be fired and his caseload will be divided among the rest of the faculty.
“Information that students previously complained to the university's administration about Oleg Sokolov is inaccurate,” the school emphasized, adding that the historian “regularly received positive evaluations” when students submitted anonymous feedback about his teaching. Speaking to Meduza, two of Sokolov’s former colleagues at the university described him as a top-notch instructor, and said that the school’s staff are “shocked” by what’s happened.
The university's statement also addressed the allegations that Oleg Sokolov attacked a woman in 2008, saying, “No one has indicated the possible victim’s name, or offered any way to contact her. Sokolov himself was not prosecuted.” A source close to the university’s administration told Meduza that the school had no way of knowing about the allegations until a year ago, when the story leaked to the press, since the case never went to court. The university says it has no information about any other alleged attacks perpetrated by Sokolov.
At the same time, the school says it’s now developing an “additional set of measures to prevent such situations in society.” For example, the university supports an initiative from State Duma deputy Evgeny Marchenko, who’s proposed requiring law-enforcement agencies to inform educational institutions whenever their staff are accused of sexual assault, and making it necessary for instructors to provide administrators with mental-health records.
Sokolov’s colleagues knew about his relationships, and Anastasia Eshchenko wasn’t his first student romance
Two of Sokolov’s former colleagues told Meduza that “everyone at the school knew” about his relationship with Anastasia Eshchenko. Meduza also learned that Sokolov never informed the university’s administration that he was involved romantically with his former student (when she was killed, Eshchenko was a graduate student, and Sokolov served as her academic adviser). A source in the school’s administration told Meduza that the university observes a practice of such reporting to avoid conflicts of interest, for example, so instructors who have personal relationships with students don’t end up grading them.
In court on November 11, Sokolov said he’s been dating Eshchenko for the past five years, and in August he says he started introducing her to friends as his fiancée. Former colleagues say Sokolov dated several students, but the relationships supposedly always ended amicably. The university says it never received any complaints from Sokolov’s partners.