In Arrochar she is still remembered, and not only because her remains were discovered there. Years later her death is as much a cause of speculation in that small Argyllshire community as it was at the time. There is a deep scepticism about the official version of events, coupled with a suspicion that the Scottish authorities failed to investigate the case properly and hurried to a premature judgement. For these reasons we are re-opening our own file on Yulia (Yulechka) Solodyankina.
Yulia, the 22-year-old daughter of a wealthy company director in Moscow, came to Scotland to study physics. While at Edinburgh University, she joined a dance group, Anansi. On 6 June 2013, she was attending a gig at a pub called the Wee Red Bar in Lady Lawson Street when, around 9pm, she told her companions she wasn't feeling well and left, apparently to go back to her flat. The following morning she messaged her boyfriend. We don't know what was in that last message.
The following afternoon, 7 June, Yulia was twice captured on CCTV: first walking down South Bridge in Edinburgh at 2.50pm, then in Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow at 4.55pm. In the latter footage she walks across the concourse into WHSmith, reappears about a minute later, and looks over both shoulders before disappearing out of sight. The footage is inconclusive: she could have been going to board a bus; equally possibly, she could have been leaving the bus station. If she did continue her journey – say on the late afternoon Citylink coach to Oban which calls at Arrochar – it is strange that the trail ended at Buchanan Street, for Citylink had CCTV on its buses in June 2013.
Yulia's friends instigated a huge appeal for her on social media. They hosted dance and drumming events across Edinburgh and circulated thousands of coffee cups with her photograph. Her face was plastered on lamp-posts and shop windows on the university campuses. The charity Missing People featured her on digital billboards and in media outlets. But the search for Yulia led nowhere. She was never seen or heard from again.
On 9 January 2014 – 216 days later – a body was found by two hillwalkers near a woodland track 42 miles from Buchanan Street bus station. Although forensic pathologists were able to identify it from DNA testing, they were unable to say much more. Their code of practice obliges them to record a death as 'unascertained' or 'undetermined' if, having considered all the evidence, 'no cause can reasonably be found'. In this case, it was 'unascertained', no doubt because the body was so badly decomposed. The police did not delay long – a mere four days – before declaring that there were 'no suspicious circumstances', a well-known official euphemism for suicide.
Media coverage of the discovery in Arrochar ranged from the fanciful to the bizarre. At least four newspapers reported that Yulia had chosen to travel to a 'beauty spot' for the purpose of taking her own life. It's no beauty spot. SR's Rachel Sharp, who recently visited the site, reports: 'It is shaded by extremely tall trees which block any view of Argyll or Loch Long. It's also midge-infested and literally used as a dumping ground.'
Another newspaper – the Herald – said initially that the head and hands had 'reportedly been removed' from the body and that it was 'believed to have been partly wrapped in plastic'. By the following morning the story had been amended to exclude any reference to decapitation, but the online version continues to refer to the body having been partly wrapped in plastic, a claim that the authorities have neither confirmed nor denied.
From the limited information provided by the police and the media (assuming that any of the media stories can be trusted), it is possible to piece together a narrative of Yulia's last minutes: she leaves the bus near the Tarbet Hotel, walks past the railway station, climbs hilly terrain, and hangs herself from a tree in a thickly wooded area. Her body, which has slipped to the ground in the long process of decomposition, lies there until heavy rain causes the soil to shift and exposes the remains.
How plausible is any of this?
First, let's have a closer look at the site. Yulia's body was found 60 yards from a woodland track leading to the hill known as the Cobbler. The track has vehicle access to and from the A83 and is used by dog walkers, joggers, mountain bikers, the Forestry Commission and the local council. Two local residents accompanied Rachel Sharp to the spot.
She writes: 'Stephen and I walked from the hotel to where she allegedly hanged herself. He invited me to lead the way to get a sense of her thought process on the journey. The route is obscure and involves walking along the main road and zig-zagging up a hill. After climbing for 10 minutes or so, we arrived at a dirt road which diverged into three different paths. I decided that, having climbed this far, it would make sense to keep going up, but Yulia, apparently, opted to walk in the direction of a downward slope. Her remains were found a few hundred yards beyond this point.'
||In Rachel's opinion, there are two problems with the narrative:
1. The theory that the soil shifted with the rain is hard to accept because the ground is so much shaded by forestry as to be 'pretty much solid'.
2. Yulia could not have hanged herself from a tree because the branches are too far from the ground. Any branches that are within reach would have been too thin to support her weight.
Jason: I came down what was the original climbers' path. I'd overdone it with my appendix and sat down on a stone over there. Now, I can't be 100% sure which stone it was, but I'm about 90% sure it was that one over there [points]. I sat on that stone for at least half an hour, possibly longer. I had my working dog with me, a scent dog, and all that time she was running about in the area and coming back over to me. If Yulia was hanging from a tree, I wouldn't have thought there was any way she wouldn't have been seen. I'm not saying it's impossible. But it's improbable.
Stephen: We live here. We know the area and its habits. The track near where Yulia's remains were found is an easy little track that much of the village community uses. It has a high footfall during the day, summer or winter. The notion that Yulia died there by suicide and then remained undiscovered through June, July, August, September, October, November and December is ridiculous. In the summer, there would have been a persistent stench. Jason is being very precise with his language about the improbability of her not being found over that length of time, but I go further...I get the sense that she was placed there after decomposition had taken place somewhere else.
Next, the circumstantial evidence pointing to a suicidal intention. Yulia had failed to obtain an honours degree and lied when she told her father she had achieved a 2:1; she was awarded an ordinary. Media reports – if you choose to believe them – say that, when police searched her flat, they found suicide websites on her laptop history and that she left her phone, passport and purse in the flat. (What, then, was she carrying in the overnight bag she had with her, visible on the CCTV footage?) None of these claims can be substantiated because of the rapid closure of the police investigation and the decision of the procurator fiscal not to recommend a fatal accident inquiry.
Rachel Sharp writes: 'I've been looking at online footage from Anansi. Yulia messes up the last step in one of the dances and once the music is over she doesn't smile, clap or talk to anyone. She just walks away. This video was published 10 days before she was reported missing. This, in addition to the fact that she didn't do well in her final year at university, suggests she might have been the type of person who is hard on herself. It does get you thinking that perhaps she really was incredibly stressed and had had enough. None of this, however, is conclusive evidence that she travelled to the west of Scotland to kill herself. If anything, there is just as much evidence to suggest that she was making active plans and excited for the future. She had paid to stay in her flat for an extra 10 days after the end of term, she had planned to meet a friend in London later in June, and her father was due to visit from Russia for two weeks.'
One of her friends told a newspaper: 'I wish I'd seen Yulia in Glasgow that day. I would have told her how beautiful and intelligent she was and she didn't need a degree to prove it.' But not everyone in her circle buys the suicide theory: her friend and flatmate Alexandra Amon doubts it. Matthew Crisp, who was prominent in the campaign to find her, agreed: 'Yulia seemed happy and just like her normal self the last time I saw her. It's a complete mystery. She didn't have any problems as far as I'm aware. There's been tons of speculation, but they don't hold much ground.'
The Yulia case bears a number of disconcerting similarities to the mysterious death of another young foreign national, Annie Borjesson, extensively reported in SR over the years, who likewise lived in Edinburgh, was likewise active in the creative life of the city, and likewise travelled to the west of Scotland allegedly with suicide in mind. There was the same rush to judgement in Annie's case, the police wrapping it up in the same euphemism, 'no suspicious circumstances', and the same failure of public accountability.
Just as there is a lingering suspicion that, far from drowning off the beach of a town with which she was unfamiliar, Annie was dumped there after death, so there are doubts over the fragile narrative in Yulia's case, where a body somehow lay month after month, undetected by the scent of Jason Ferguson's dog or the footfall of many walkers, in a rural village with which she too was unfamiliar.
Arrochar has been left with a symbol of official casualness and insensitivity: the police tape still in the bushes after three years. If only everything else about the death of Yulia Solodyankina was so transparent.