A Russian historian who confessed to murdering and dismembering his ex-student lover appeared in court on Monday as calls grew for an investigation into his alleged abuse of women students.

Pale and unshaven, the 63-year-old prominent Napoleon expert broke down in tears in the glass enclosure, covering his face with his hands, as judges were to decide whether to formally arrest him.

"I am devastated by what has happened, I repent," Oleg Sokolov said in court.

The horrific case drew fresh attention to violence against women in Russia, including in academic circles, which critics said authorities were not taking seriously.

Sokolov, a professor at Saint Petersburg State University, confessed to murdering his 24-year-old lover and former student and dismembering her body.

He was detained after being hauled out of the icy Moika River on Saturday as he tried to dispose of the woman's arms. He lived with Anastasia Yeshchenko for the past few years and allegedly killed her last week.

News of the case -- and allegations that Sokolov had abused at least one other female student -- prompted widespread outrage and demands for action.

Sokolov often led historical re-enactments of Napoleon in Russia
Sokolov often led historical re-enactments of Napoleon in Russia AFP / OLGA MALTSEVA

"This case highlighted the impunity of abusers in society," Alyona Sadikova, the head of the Moscow-based Kitezh women's crisis centre, told AFP.

More than 6,000 people signed an online petition urging authorities to probe the management of Saint Petersburg State University.

The petition said Sokolov had treated students "in a monstrous way" and cited another female student who said the historian had beaten her and threatened to burn her with a hot iron and kill her in 2008.

"For unknown reasons, the abuser managed to escape any punishment," the petition said, adding that police who had ignored the woman's complaint should also be probed.

Many students blamed the university leadership, saying it had long ignored the problem.

"No one paid attention," student Ivan Pustovoit told AFP on campus, blaming the university for not stopping Sokolov "in time."

The Kremlin on Monday called the murder "a monstrous act of insanity" but sought to portray it as an isolated case.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin, who attended Saint Petersburg State University, was aware of what had happened.

Sokolov tried to dispose of his murdered lover's arms in the Moika river
Sokolov tried to dispose of his murdered lover's arms in the Moika river AFP / OLGA MALTSEVA

He declined however to address concerns over reports of harassment in Russian universities, saying: "What does the presidential administration have to do with it?"

Russia has no specific legislation on domestic violence or sexual harassment in the workplace and feminist movements like #MeToo have had little impact in the country.

Alyona Popova, a Moscow lawyer and women's rights activist, said Sokolov -- who was close to Russian authorities -- was "shielded by our rotten system".

"This murder could have been avoided," she wrote on Facebook.

Women's rights activist Anna Rivina told AFP that violence against women was frequently ignored until "something terrible, irreversible happens".

"Our society is absolutely not prepared for work to prevent abuse," said Rivina, who runs a centre providing assistance for victims of violence.

Many also slammed the often toxic culture in academia.

Commenting on a social media page dedicated to gender violence, one woman said university lecturers often seek sexual favours from "attractive female students".

"I pity us if this harassment at universities does not finally become a public issue," wrote another woman, Anastasia Khodyreva.

Sokolov is the author of several books on French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and often led historical re-enactments of the Napoleonic war in Russia. He received France's Legion d'Honneur in 2003.

He and Yeshchenko co-authored a number of works and liked to wear period costumes, with Sokolov dressing up as Napoleon.

He allegedly shot and killed her during an argument and then sawed off her head, arms and legs.

After disposing of the corpse he reportedly planned to commit suicide at the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the former imperial capital's most famous landmarks, dressed as Napoleon.