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“Excessive”, “impulsive”, “a little rough” … Who is the Russian historian Oleg Sokolov, accused of murdering his girlfriend?

Imprisoned for killing and dismembering Anastasia Echchenko, a former student, this great specialist of Napoleon and reenactments is described by those who know him as an ambiguous figure.

This is the story of a big dive into horror. This Saturday, November 9, in St. Petersburg, the Russian historian Oleg Sokolov is pulled out of the water by the police, after falling in the Moika under the influence of drunkenness. By opening her backpack, the officers then discover two woman's arms and an alarm gun – other body fragments will be pulled later from another stream. Very quickly, the researcher recognizes the murder of one of his former students of 24 years, Anastassia Echchenko, whose life he shares.

Police and emergency services intervened on the Moika on November 10, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Russia, following the arrest of Oleg Sokolov. (OLGA MALTSEVA / AFP)

Faced with the judge, the 63-year-old historian has to face his own past. Unshaven, in jeans, he conceals some sobs and says he wanted to defend himself. His companion, he says, would have attacked him with a knife in a fit of anger linked to his children born of a previous marriage – “I'm in shock, I feel remorse.” Oleg Sokolov is remanded in custody until January 8, the time to conduct an investigation that already fascinates the country. Asked by the press, the Kremlin spokesman himself evokes a “appalling crime” and one likely “act of madness”.

At this stage of the investigation, the trail of domestic violence is favored. Sergei Echchenko, the brother of the victim, said in particular at the RBK site (in Russian) than “jealousy” was at the origin of the crime. “I spoke to him before (the drama, on the phone). She told him that she was going to a student friend's birthday. He beat her, she went out anyway and then she came back … ” A neighbor also tells to have heard a violent argument and blows during the night. After the revelations about the case, the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets (in Russian) published a complaint filed in 2008 against the historian by a student who accused her of having tied her up and beaten because she wanted to break up.

The issue is in the headlines of the Russian press, but it also arouses amazement in France. If the name of Oleg Sokolov is unknown to the general public, it makes reference however to the specialists of Napoleon Bonaparte and lovers of historical reenactments. Last September, in the presence of the French ambassador, the Russian historian was still reviewing the troops at an annual event dedicated to the Battle of Borodino.

French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann and Defense Attaché, Brigadier General Ivan Martin, review troops presented by historian emeritus Oleg Sokolov at a re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino on 1 September 2019.
French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann and Defense Attaché, Brigadier General Ivan Martin, review troops presented by historian emeritus Oleg Sokolov at a re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino on 1 September 2019. (OLGA VERETNNIKOVA / EMBASSY OF FRANCE IN RUSSIA)

Francophone and Francophile, Oleg Sokolov has established relationships in France very early. He finds an echo favorable to his work to the point of being invited for a month as director of studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, during the year 1997-1998. Ephemeral delegate of Napoleon's memory in the early 2000s, he rubs shoulders with a growing number of political actors. Three years later, Oleg Sokolov was promoted to Knight of the Legion of Honor – Jean-Pierre Raffarin was then in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Many people tried to call me, but initially I did not believe it”reacts expert and collector Pierre-Jean Chalençon, still shocked by the facts. This longtime friend of the historian describes him a “man often surrounded by younger and more elegant young women”. “I have never seen violent behavior on his part”, despite a character sometimes “impulsive”, he testifies.

He is as comfortable on a battlefield as at a social gathering.Pierre-Jean Chalençonat franceinfo

Pierre-Jean Chalençon also mentions a perfectly bilingual man and a “generous type”, which occasionally offered the restaurant or a box of caviar. His lifestyle, moreover, remains a mystery. His friend remembers: I introduced him to the sulky brother-in-law of Moscow Mayor Victor Batourine (imprisoned in 2012), who bought a lot of Napoleonic items, which allowed Oleg to fill his wallet with commissions. ” Oleg Sokolov seemed to have many projects, more or less whimsical: “UHe had not even tried to convince me to invest in a project in Russia of wooden chalets.

In 2016, the Russian Embassy in France contacted Marion Maréchal's team – a member of the France-Russia association – to present him a “great francophile and francophone historian”, remembers Arnaud Stephan, advisor to the former FN deputy. A meeting is held in the National Assembly. “He proudly wore the rosette of the Legion of Honor. He was curious and always had an anecdote to tell. He used a very punished Frenchman and always looked for the right word. “

Three years later, here is the member historian the scientific council of the private school ISSEP founded by the niece of Marine Le Pen, composed of figures of the far right, which has also signed a recognition agreement with the University of St. Petersburg. After the announcement of the murder, the institution immediately reacted by withdrawing “his function as a member of the scientific council” and by presenting and “all (his) condolences and (his) support to the victim's family “.

Contacted by franceinfo, the school did not wish to comment more on this case, but its director of studies specifies on Twitter that the historian had only one conference “to his credit, on Napoleon”.

“Of course, he is not leftist, but 'General Sokolov', as I call him, has no particular political opinion, he goes where the money is.”says Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who was unaware that Oleg Sokolov had joined ISSEP.

But Oleg Sokolov is best known in France for his multiple participations in historical re-enactments as appearing or consulting. A devouring passion, to which he devotes himself with exaltation. “He is a colorful character, with a strong personality – very Russian, in short”, summarizes Franck Samson, who has interpreted Napoleon for fifteen years. The opportunity to share some rides with a historian “a little rough” when he was putting on the uniform, as on a cold December day in Austerlitz (Belgium), in the late 2000s.

He falls from his horse and climbs a little sheepishly on his horse, with blood on his mouth. I question him, he tells me his fall. Then I answer him: 'No, you've been hit by a ball of passage!' He recovers at once and rushes the sword clear towards the Prussian troops.Franck Samsonat franceinfo

The mundane man is totally transfigured during these historical events, to the point of forging himself the image of a rider with little horses. The rumor continues and Oleg Sokolov even begs the mayor Patrick Ollier to grant him a mount for the imperial jubilee of Rueil-Malmaison (Hauts-de-Seine), says Pierre-Jean Chalençon. The request will remain a dead letter.

Gilles Ameil, Honorary President of the Friends of Napoleon III, also remembers a man from “strong character”, sometimes “excessive” and always looking for grandiose reconstructions – “About ten years ago, he wanted to bring down a Napoleonic troupe on the Champs-Elysees.”

Anastassia Echchenko and Oleg Sokolov during a pageant.
Anastassia Echchenko and Oleg Sokolov during a pageant. (/)

But the murder charges have also resurfaced unsavory memories. In Russia, the architect Irina Fedorova so accused him for having caused the fatal sinking of a historic ship during the filming of a film in 1981, when he was a student and took control of the boat. The young historian, she says, escaped by swimming, while the accident cost the life of a scientist. Quoted by Lentv24 (in Russian), Irina Federova keeps a bitter memory of the episode: “Sokolov is a showman, for him, history is a show.”

If the historian's expertise is now well established, he is described by many as an exalted, passionate and theatrical man. His taste for reenactments also feeds the chronic ambiguity of the researcher, analyzes the historian David Chanteranne, also editor of several magazines, contacted by franceinfo.

Last year, in Italy, he spoke after me. He became enthusiastic and the tone rose: 'Sus!' It's as if he was there and he had to push back the Austrians. After a quarter of an hour, the galvanized public applauded loudly.David Chanteranneat franceinfo

Oleg Sokolov never wore the emperor's clothes himself, but he blossomed in a general's uniform. “The academic has the duty to distinguish between study and passion, especially when the objects of research are complex or may lend themselves to controversy. I never told him about it, maybe I should have done it “summarizes the researcher still affected by the horror of the crime attributed to Oleg Sokolov. Questioned by The Telegramin 2004, he let himself be mysterious about his devouring passion.

If Russia had not been Soviet, I would be an officer without a doubt. I was born to be a warrior.Oleg Sokolovin “The Telegram”

Is Oleg Sokolov an heir to Rodion Raskolnikov, the main character of Crime and Punishment, convinced to be part of the race of supermen and therefore to be allowed, in the manner of a Napoleon, to shed the blood of the innocent in his quest? The “general” fallen, in any case, tried to escape the fate of the hero of the novel, judged by men after being confused.

The historian Oleg Sokolov during his court appearance in St. Petersburg (Russia) on November 11, 2019. & nbsp;
The historian Oleg Sokolov during his court appearance in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on November 11, 2019. (OLGA MALTSEVA / AFP)

The historian had planned to commit suicide in uniform, near the Peter and Paul Fortress, after the murder of his girlfriend, assures his lawyer. This detail, moreover, does not surprise the former “emperor” himself, Franck Samson: “In the military, suicide is a way out because dishonor is terrible.” Now far from the battlefields, Oleg Sokolov has plenty of time to go back to Dostoyevsky's work to mourn his imperial dreams.

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