‘Victims of the Russian Napoleon’ Young woman who survived relationship with St. Petersburg historian who murdered his graduate student girlfriend speaks out in new documentary
The Russian streaming platform “Premier” has released a documentary film about St. Petersburg historian Oleg Sokolov, who killed his former graduate student, Anastasia Yeshchenko, on the night of November 8, 2019. The film, titled Invitation to the Ball: Victims of the Russian Napoleon, features another victim's first ever interview, in which she explains how her own relationship with Sokolov nearly cost her her life, and why she thinks it’s so important to speak out. Meduza summarizes the key points from the 40-minute documentary.
When it came time to bury her 24-year-old daughter, Anastasia Yeshchenko’s mother, Galina Yeshchenko, travelled all the way to St. Petersburg from the village of Kubanskaya (Krasnodar Krai) to buy her a wedding dress. She never thought she’d have to do this for her daughter's wedding, let alone to dress her for her funeral. Anastasia Yeshchenko was studying history at St. Petersburg State University. The first page of her notebook contains the following entry in pink ink: “I am a talented historian. My articles are in demand and recognized by the academic community.” There is nothing else written in the notebook.
A recording from a CCTV camera shows a man walking along St. Petersburg’s Moika Embankment. When he reaches the parapet, he swings several bags over the edge and throws them into the river. The man is Anastasia Yeshchenko’s killer — 63-year-old historian Oleg Sokolov, an assistant professor at St. Petersburg State University. The bags contain pieces of Anastasia Yeshchenko’s body. The frame cuts to a court hearing: through tears, Sokolov admits that she seemed like the perfect woman, but “turned into a monster,” which he claims is the reason behind the murder.
The lawyer for Yeshchenko’s family, Alexandra Baksheeva, explains that the historian targeted young women with brown hair, who had an alleged resemblance to Napoleon’s wife — he paid particular attention to them and tried to establish romantic relationships. This happened to several young women who studied under Sokolov. They say it was easy for him to be charming: he spoke about his work as a military historian of France with such passion that it turned into an entire show. Stately, well-dressed, it was impossible to look away, he was simply fascinating. If he took a liking to someone, Sokolov invited them to participate in meetings with historians and historical reenactors inspired by the Napoleonic era — especially balls. The documentary shows a whole series of clips: Sokolov exiting an army tent dressed as Napoleon, a photo of him in costume while riding a white horse, surrounded by “french soldiers”; shots from a ball where everyone is waltzing in historical outfits. A woman by the name of Daria explains how Sokolov once invited her to a picnic with his “deputies.” They were riding horses, when he suddenly reached over and tried to kiss her — “quite aggressively,” Daria says. After this incident her trust in Sokolov as a professor was lost.
The Yeshchenko family’s lawyer explains that a report was filed against Sokolov for assault in 2008, by his ex-girlfriend, Ekaterina Ivanova. The incident took place in Moscow. Ivanova told Sokolov that she was breaking up with him, after she found out that he was married. When she met him to collect her things, he was absolutely calm. And then suddenly he tied up her hands, tied her to a chair, and began to beat her, threatening her with a hot iron.
Baksheeva talks to Ekaterina Ivanova, who, acting in the interests of the Yeschenko family, made a special trip in from another country, because she believes her story is reminiscent of Anastsia’s case. Her face is not shown in the film, but Ivanova adds several striking details to the portrait of Sokolov. For example, she says he “flipped his lid” when he put on his Napoleonic uniform (insert clips of Sokolov dressed as Napoleon on horseback, raising a sword in salute). He immediately sensed her vulnerabilities. When he was going out with her he imposed his own tastes, controlled her actions, and limited her circle of friends. He forced both Ekaterina and Anastasia to dress the way he liked, he convinced them to stop talking to friends, and to abandon their former hobbies.
When Anastasia Yeschenko moved out of the student dormitories and into Sokolov’s apartment, her mother tried to talk her out of it, but Anastasia was firm: she thought that from then on she and Sokolov would always be together. She helped him prepare his lectures and graded his students’ work for him.
In both cases, the women’s plans to leave Sokolov led to an explosion. Sokolov beat Ekaterina Ivanova and tried to strangle her, calling her “a monster” (he called Yeshchenko the same after he had killed her). Nevertheless, Ivanova’s criminal case against him was never pursued. Baksheeva thinks that if law enforcement agencies had handled this case properly in 2008–2009, it’s possible that Anastasia’s murder could have been avoided. Ivanova says herself that she made a big mistake by staying silent eleven years ago.
Anastasia Yeschenko’s brother explains that during the night of November 7–8, 2019, she called him in tears and said that Sokolov had beaten her because a friend invited her to a birthday party. She quickly called back and said that conflict had been resolved. But at 1:30 a.m. Oleg Sokolov shot Anastasia Yeshchenko with a sawed-off shotgun. There were four shots — Sokolov reloaded the weapon several times. He then hid her body in the next room, and invited guests over the next evening. After the party, Sokolov dismembered her corpse with a saw and tried to get rid of the remains. Baksheeva says that according to experts, Sokolov was completely sane and understood what he was doing perfectly.
Anastasia’s father says that the family found out about what happened from relatives, who called and asked if it was true that Anastasia had been murdered after the news appeared everywhere online. They checked and it all turned out to be true.
When Sokolov’s apartment was being searched as the scene of the crime, he attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself; he approached a cabinet with knives and abruptly pulled out a dagger. His suicide attempt failed. The criminal proceedings against Oleg Sokolov are scheduled to go to court on June 9, 2020.
You can watch the documentary film Invitation to the Ball: Victims of the Russian Napoleon here.
Translation by Eilish Hart