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by Theresa Kyle


Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin (we learn his patronymic in "Terbuf" and "Fifteen Years Later"), at first glance, seems quite mysterious, but actually his history is less of a mystery than Napoleon’s. We know that he was a little boy in Kiev, Russia ("Foxes and Hounds") and attended the University of Georgia in the Ukraine, where he studied gymnastics among other things ("Hot Number"). He might have tried for the Olympics, but if he did he didn’t make it ("Yukon"). He did postgraduate work at the Sorbonne and received a PhD in quantum mechanics at Cambridge ("Her Master’s Voice"). He mentions to a pretty stewardess in "The Spy With My Face" that he was in the Russian Navy, which—since he is prone to seasickness ("Shark")—must have been an embarrassing experience. He graduated from the U.N.C.L.E. Survival School in 1956 ("Survival School").

We know almost nothing about his family. (In "Cherry Blossom" he says that he has "parents in Jersey City," but we can assume this was part of his undercover role and not meant to be taken seriously.) In "Pieces of Fate" he quoted his grandmother ("Humor is the gadfly on the corpse of tragedy") and in "The Spy With My Face" he mentions a sister, perhaps facetiously ("I find [Americans] most charming, but I wouldn’t want my sister to marry one"). In "Deadly Toys," Mother Fear tries to get him to talk about his mother, but unfortunately he refuses to discuss her.

In "Fiddlesticks," he says, "Were you truly a gentleman...as I once was"—which could lead us to conclude that he comes from an aristocratic background. A trace of "breeding" occasionally comes out, especially with regards to his treatment of the elderly; in "Bow Wow" he helps an old man across the street; in "Concrete Overcoat" he hesitates to hit one of the deadly Stiletto brothers because he’s old; and in "J for Judas" he says "excuse me" to an elderly man after he disturbs the old gentleman by firing his gun in a hallway. In "Minus X," he even apologizes before he hits someone. His sense of gentlemanly decorum, however, does not always extend to women; he is usually bluntly matter-of-fact with them, sometimes to the point of rudeness (as evidenced by his treatment of Sophie in "Arabian," where he rubs it in about her being an old maid and makes comments about her "flapping mouth" and her "sparsely-furnished mind").

In "Neptune," we see Illya in the U.S.S.R. wearing an officer’s uniform, from which we can deduce that at this time he was a loyal Soviet citizen and perhaps still had ties with the U.S.S.R.’s armed forces. In any case, we can speculate from this short scene that Illya is not a defector and is, in fact, a loyal communist; if he were a defector, he would certainly not be in Russia. However, we never hear him make any political statements; in fact, after the first year, it is seldom mentioned that he is Russian at all. His accent sounds more British than Russian, probably because he attended Cambridge; he uses British expressions like "perish the thought" ("Napoleon’s Tomb," "Very Important Zombie"); his pronunciations of words such as "garage" ("Deadly Decoy") and "vitamin" ("Bow Wow") are British; and when he orders a meal in "Five Daughters" he asks for a very traditional British menu ("tomato juice, prepared kippers, French rolls, tea with lemon"). Perhaps Illya no longer considers himself a Russian, or indeed as having any nationality; he thinks of his citizenship in international terms.

Is Illya married? He never mentions a wife, but since we never see his apartment or even what he does when not at work (except the time we saw him on vacation with Napoleon in "Terbuf"), it’s possible; his lack of interest in most members of the opposite sex might be an indication that he is already committed to someone else, and he did wear a wedding ring in the first- and second-year episodes (and the first few episodes of the third). There is also an interesting scene in "Four Steps" (first year), where a little boy shows an amazing understanding of the female psyche; Illya asks him, half-seriously, "Are you sure you’re not married?", which might indicate that he has had experience with that blessed state. Also, unlike Napoleon, who states several times that he isn’t married, Illya never answers that question when asked—in the original series, at least. When Clotilda Willard asks him in "Bow Wow" about his marital state, he evades with an enigmatic quotation ("Had I but world enough and time...", a paraphrase of Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress"); he also evades Tracy Alexander’s prying in "Alexander the Greater" when she tries to find out the same thing. By this we might conclude that Illya is married (or was in the first and second years) but prefers not to talk about it. However, there is also a scene in "Fifteen Years Later" when Illya tells a prospective client of Vanya’s that he’s never been married. Was he telling the truth then, or lying? Or was he merely trying to forget the fact that he had been married—because, perhaps, the marriage had ended unhappily, even tragically? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

The THRUSH computer tells Barnaby Partridge in "THRUSH Roulette" that Illya has blond hair, blue eyes, is 5’10½" and weighs 160 pounds, but the latter two "facts" might be exaggerations; he appears to be 5’8" and perhaps 140 pounds. His blood type is B. In "Foreign Legion" a THRUSH agent describes him as "blond, very blond, not very tall, slim." He wears glasses for reading, sometimes tinted ones; he occasionally puts them on as part of an undercover guise, to look threatening ("Mad Mad Tea Party") or nerdy ("Birds and Bees"), or, once, to resemble a doctor ("Girls of Nazarone"). His age is a mystery; since he graduated from the Survival School in 1956 we can assume he is at least 28 when the series begins, but looks younger; due to his youthful appearance, he is easily able to pass as a student in "Cap and Gown."

His most striking feature, of course, is his hair, which is golden blond and which he wears in a modified Beatle cut (longer in the fourth year). There’s a hint he’s somewhat vain about it; occasionally he pats it after it’s been mussed ("Deep Six"), and in "Very Important Zombie" he pays a barber $10 not to cut it. In "Hot Number," Napoleon mentions the shaggy hairstyles popular with the youth at that time, and Illya says icily, "I like it."

Illya certainly knows a great deal about a great many things. In "Apple a Day" he shows a well-honed knowledge of chemistry and physics; in "Take Me To Your Leader" he confesses to knowing "a great deal" about radioastronomy. He speaks a large number of languages fluently; in "Yukon" he says "hello" to Murphy in many different languages; he speaks fluent French in "Deadly Decoy" and Japanese in "Cherry Blossom." In "My Friend the Gorilla" he’s asked if he knows Swahili drum talk and he says, "No, that’s one language I missed." He is an expert on gypsy ways ("Terbuf" and "Bow Wow"), leading to the intriguing speculation that he might be part gypsy, or perhaps might have once lived with gypsies (interestingly enough, one of the minorities that Hitler tried to wipe out during World War II).

His skills are many and varied as well. He is a master of disguises ("Hong Kong Shilling," "Strigas," and others) and very athletic—among other things, he is an expert swimmer and gymnast. His THRUSH ID (in "THRUSH Roulette") says that he is "known to be proficient in Physical Arts, Judo, Karate, Fencing, Sharpshooter." In "Her Master’s Voice" we find out he has a black belt in karate, and in "Virtue" we find he is an expert archer. In "Cap and Gown" he tells Napoleon he climbed Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the continental U.S.). In "Hong Kong Shilling" we see he’s a touch typist—quite a rarity for a man in the 1960s.

He also has a number of adept mechanical skills. In "Never Never" he knows enough about cars to know how to loosen the distributor cap so that the car will run badly (earning the remark "smart Russian" from Napoleon). He can drive a motorcycle ("Monks of St. Thomas"), a bus ("When in Roma"), and fly a plane ("Five Daughters") and a helicopter ("Seven Wonders"). He can dismantle a bomb with ease ("Test Tube Killer"); in "Survival School" we learn that he’s so adept at demolitions that he stayed at the Survival School a month after he graduated to teach a class about explosives.

Some things Illya doesn’t know, however: he doesn’t know how to bake a soufflé ("Suburbia"); he’s never flown a dirigible ("Pop Art"); he doesn’t know what a hot fudge sundae is ("Matterhorn"); and he is not too knowledgeable about television: in "Cherry Blossom" he recognizes Dr. Kildare on a TV screen (then one of the most popular TV shows on the air) but doesn’t know his name. (He does, however, show an intensive knowledge of the movie "King Kong" in "Pop Art.") He is not adept at social situations, nor is he particularly gifted with "gab"; he usually leaves the talking to Napoleon. (He can use his charm when he has to, however, as in "Adriatic Express.")

It was mentioned in the MGM biography that he lived in the same apartment building as Napoleon, but this was never confirmed in an episode.

He identifies himself as "Number Two, Section Two, Enforcement" in "Foxes and Hounds" (but "Number Two, Section One" in "Foreign Legion"), and he is next in line for promotion after Napoleon ("Giuoco Piano"); Napoleon has two years’ seniority over him ("Fiddlesticks"). One of the students at the Survival School calls him, sarcastically, "the great Mr. Kuryakin" ("Survival School"), an indication that he is considered one of U.N.C.L.E.’s "finest."

He has a deep love for music. In the MGM biography it was mentioned that he had a pile of jazz records under his bed, and in "Shark" he speaks quite passionately about how well a Russian pianist plays Bach, showing that he enjoys the classics as well as jazz. He is also musically knowledgeable. He plays the bass viol in a jazz band in "Discotheque," the guitar in "Take Me To Your Leader," and an English horn in "Off Broadway." In "Monks of St. Thomas" he immediately discerns the note the bell in the bell tower is ringing. He can also sing (at least a little). In "Take Me To Your Leader" Coco is so impressed by his musical talent that she has a vision of the two of them becoming another Sonny and Cher.

Although we see him with a cigarette dangling from his mouth when he’s undercover in "Ultimate Computer," and he uses a cigarette as part of the exchange of a code phrase in "King of Diamonds," Illya doesn’t smoke ("Fiddlesticks"). He does drink, however, as does Napoleon; in "Odd Man" and "Galatea" we see him drinking beer, and in "My Friend the Gorilla" he takes some wine, saying he’s not a wine connoisseur but "I know what I like." In "Adriatic Express" he takes some cognac straight from the bottle, and he and Napoleon share a bottle of slivovitz in "Terbuf."

His chief vice, however, appears to be food. In "Shark" a housewife asks him "Do you eat?" and he says emphatically, "Yes, ma’am." We see him eating such diverse tidbits as seal blubber ("Yukon"; he pronounces it "delicious"), yak stew ("Abominable Snowman"), and Chinese takeout (the latter with chopsticks) in "Her Master’s Voice." When in prison undercover in "Ultimate Computer" his chief complaint is that he’s "very, very hungry." He likes turkey, or says he does in "Jingle Bells," and is also fond of chocolate pudding ("Fiery Angel"); the only thing we ever saw him eat that he didn’t seem to like was yak liver oil ("Abominable Snowman"). His appetite is indestructible. In "Virtue" he says, after being almost guillotined, that the experience has given him an appetite; and in "Finny Foot," when he’s shot, he tells Napoleon he doesn’t want to miss lunch.

Some trivia: he is a Scorpio ("Abominable Snowman"). He can be cheap at times ("Her Master’s Voice"), and there’s an indication that he suffers from the capitalist’s weakness of avarice in "Do It Yourself Dreadful," in which he reads aloud the sum of THRUSH’s total assets in what Waverly calls a "tone of naked greed." He likes cats and even seems to have an affinity for them ("Bridge of Lions," "Thor") but is afraid of dogs ("Bow Wow" and "Apple a Day"). He’s not crazy about bats either ("Bat Cave"). It’s possible that he’s ambidextrous (in "Children’s Day" he switches his gun to his left hand and then back to his right again; in "THRUSH Roulette" he switches the gun he’s supposed to kill Napoleon with to different hands several times). He drinks his coffee black ("Matterhorn").

Illya, despite his toughness, has a few vulnerabilities. He mentions in "Fiery Angel" that he has allergies; in "King of Diamonds" we see he is prone to colds. We can also assume, the way he yells when Barbara bites him in "Foreign Legion" or the way he moans in "Children’s Day" after being whipped, or how he complains several times during "Brainkiller" of a headache, that he has a low pain threshold. (Even though in "THRUSH Roulette" he tells the THRUSH agent that he has "an abnormally high pain threshold" and in "Pop Art" he tells Sylvia that people in his family have "amazing recuperative powers," both are probably braggadocio.)

Illya is somewhat dour and sardonic, his humor usually imbued with a distinctly cynical bent. He occasionally makes comments that bear this out, for example: "No man is free who has to work for a living" ("Bow Wow"); "No man calls upon his honor so much as he who lacks it" ("Fiddlesticks"); "Innocence is not a bullet-proof commodity" ("Foxes and Hounds"); and, regarding dowries: "That’s an old European custom I approve of: paying the men to marry the girls" ("Deadly Goddess"). In "Waverly Ring" he calls himself a pragmatist; sentiment is definitely not a part of his makeup. There’s a hint of bloodthirstiness in his nature; for example, in "Gazebo in the Maze," while he and Napoleon listen to a man being torn apart by a wolf, Illya says drily, "Bon appetit." In "Bridge of Lions" he says over the body of a dead man, "At least he won’t have to worry about getting any older."

Women are definitely not one of Illya’s vices. They chase after him constantly, but he usually either evades them with some dry or sarcastic remark or ignores them completely. He doesn’t seem to enjoy their compliments; in "Thor," a woman tells him he’s cute and he gives her a sour look and says, very sarcastically, "You’re very kind." (In "Concrete Overcoat" Miss Diketon says the same thing, and he says expressionlessly, "Thank you.") In "Pop Art" a woman purses her lips, expecting Illya to kiss her, and Illya is completely nonplussed; in "Cap and Gown" a girl, deciding that a liaison between herself and Illya would be a triumph of eugenics, goes after him, and Illya is so distressed by her pursuit that he tells her insanity runs in his family. In "Super-Colossal" a Marilyn Monroe type literally chases him, and he backs up quickly and finally manages to distract her by holding up a mirror so she can admire her own reflection. When Illya confesses to being with a woman in "Hula Doll," Mr. Waverly is astonished, saying, "This is the sort of thing I’d expect from Mr. Solo."

For all his avoidance of the female sex, Illya is not an innocent; we know that he’s been in a geisha house at least twice ("Five Daughters"), and in "Very Important Zombie" he makes the decidedly un-naive remark: "It’s amazing how quickly a girl can take her clothes off, and how long it takes to put them on again." When a nurse, giving him a massage in "Come With Me to the Casbah," mentions anemia and asks how his blood is, he replies, "Racing"; in "Round Table" he actually responds to Linda, back at U.N.C.L.E., when she tells him over his communicator how much she wishes she were there with him. He also seems to very much enjoy watching a belly dancer perform in the London nightclub in "Odd Man."

After a disastrous affair in Yugoslavia, in which Illya was betrayed by a fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent who turned traitor and an innocent young girl was subsequently killed, Illya quit U.N.C.L.E. and became a very successful fashion designer. And he refused to rejoin, even for one affair, until Napoleon told him, "I need you."


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