Origin of a Character: Alexei N. Bukharin

Alexei Nicholaivitch Bukharin is a thinly veiled homage to Ilya Nicholaivitch Kuryakin. End of post.

More to it Than That

I was a huge fan of the 1960s TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Ilya was my favorite character. (Yes, in the show his name is spelled Illya, but in Russian it’s Ilya. I’m a purist.)

Why? He was mysterious, with very little back story, (although the 2015 movie gives him an intricate back story but not deep enough to justify the rages he experiences, IMHO) and the concept, at the height of the Cold War, of a western agent and a Soviet agent working together for mutual interests was unknown and hardly believable. But the writers made it work and made Ilya a fascinating character.

Because of my fascination with Ilya, I became fascinated with Russia and Russian history. That fascination would lead to a degree in history with a concentration in Russia and a study of Russian culture and language. I’m no Russia “expert,” but I understand the country and its leaders far better than a certain politician who shall remain nameless.

The Evolution of Alexei

Although way back when I didn’t know it was called fan fiction, I wrote Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories, some quite lengthy, as I recall. I featured Ilya prominently, Napoleon not so much, and I added a plucky female agent named Paula Fisher, because to me April Dancer (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) didn’t quite cut it. Paula was, of course, because I was a teenaged girl, Ilya’s love interest.

The stories were bad, really bad, mostly rehashes of the TV episodes, except Ilya and Paula had the adventures, and Napoleon was more like an advisor. Even then I didn’t include much romance; only the usual “sexual tension.”

In college I set writing those stories aside. Too busy writing papers on Russian history and Marxist-Leninist theory. By the time I started writing spy stories again, Paula Fisher had become Mai Fisher, and I had a better understand of Copyright Law. Ilya Kuryakin needed a different name.

I kept the patronymic Nicholaivitch because Nicholai is a common Russian name. I picked Alexei for the first name, based on the name of the last tsarevich, Alexei. I selected Bukharin for the surname based on the real Bolshevik, Nicholai Bukharin. The latter two aspects I worked into Alexei’s back story, but the real Bukharin is merely a distant relative, not Alexei’s father.

Still, a fictional character has to have deep back story (almost like a deep cover story) to be three dimensional, so I dipped into my knowledge of Russian history for it. Alexei’s father died in the Siege of Stalingrad a few months before Alexei’s birth. Alexei grew up on a collective managed by his mother outside Kiev in the Ukrainian S.S.R. He was a piano prodigy and excelled while a member of the Young Pioneers and Komsomol. As a result, the Party had plans for him.

Back Story Refined

Now, the above is the skeleton of a character sketch, and details about Alexei grew as I “learned” more about him.

Because he never knew his father, he made hunting Nazi war criminals a priority, with an emphasis on the ones who killed his father. What would drive a man to do that for someone he’d never known? I didn’t need to look far.

My father’s father died when my dad was barely two. My dad had no conscious memory of the man but tried his entire life to live up to someone he’d never known. I was able to incorporate behaviors and emotions into Alexei based on how my father’s lack of a father had formed him. There are more aspects of my father in Alexei as well: his focus on mission first reflects my father’s work ethic; Alexei’s absolute devotion to his granddaughter, Natalia, is exactly how my father felt about my brother and me. However, instead of my dad’s joking threats about sending me to a convent in Ireland, Alexei keeps a teenaged Natalia in check with the possibility of a convent in Ukraine.

Alexei entered the Soviet Army at the age of 16 (My dad also joined the U.S. Army at 16 in WWII.), per Party instructions. When he was stationed in Moscow, he encountered a young woman he’d grown up on the collective with, Sofya Grigorevna Krasnovskaya. They fell in love, married without the Party’s permission, and had a son Pyotor Alexeivitch. And that provided the appropriate trope to turn fun-loving Alexei into serious, emotionless, mission-focused Alexei.

As punishment for defying the Party, Sofya loses her spot at university and is assigned to work in a factory preparing rations for the Soviet Army. When Pyotor is only six months old, Sofya dies in a horrific accident at the factory. In a deep depression, Alexei hands his son over to Sofya’s parents and joins the Spetsnaz, the Soviet Army’s elite special forces.

Even though the Party has abandoned its plans for Alexei, a secret cabal inside the Soviet Union has not. Not long after joining Spetsnaz, Alexei is moved to the KGB to be a spy. In 1964, per the cabal’s plan, he defects to the United Nations Intelligence Directorate. Still a spy but now also a mole, he partners with The Directorate’s top operative, Nelson.

Enhancing the Back Story

After many years of writing stories that broke away from the U.N.C.L.E. mold, I summoned the courage to have friends read them. To my surprise they liked the stories. They liked Mai, but they especially liked Alexei except…

I’d made him too perfect. A top operative. A man who treats his partner Mai (later his wife) as an equal. He had no flaws. I considered alcoholism, but that was too much of a James Bond trope.

I made him stingy with his emotions, toward his son, his eventual second wife. He still has serious bouts of depression, but I didn’t consider that a flaw; rather a dose of reality. His Nazi hunts are extreme; there’s no question of bringing them to trial. He is the judge, jury, and executioner. He takes pleasure in the latter.

I made him a user of women. Unlike Bond, who usually has some sort of emotional connection to the women he beds, Alexei attaches no emotion to the women at all. The only purpose of his seduction is to further his mission. You might say Bond does that as well, but Bond also seduces women for the fun of it, much like his creator did. To Alexei Bukharin the seductions are merely a means to an end and the women forgotten soon after.

He does become involved with a few women, strictly on his terms, which are no encumbrances, no commitments. The death of his young (first) wife, he tells them, has left him incapable of love.

And the Rest is Historical Fiction

After Nelson suffers a serious injury and takes a desk job in The Directorate, Alexei is content to work on his own.

Until he’s asked to be the training officer for a young recruit, Maitland “Mai” Fisher. The rest, as they say is the stuff of fiction. Rather, historical fiction.

In having Alexei deal with first a sexual relationship with Mai and eventually a commitment, he had to evolve again. There were fits and starts, and he fought committing to Mai for a long time. For their relationship I borrowed from my own at the time–the good and the bad aspects. Mai and Alexei’s banter, his absolute belief that she is his equal in espionage come directly from my significant other at the time. Unlike my relationship, Mai and Alexei do get an HEA–hence, the “hint of romance” in my tag line.

Lest I forget to mention: Alexei is tall–6’2″–with blond hair that faded to white; blue eyes. In my head, he resembles Viggo Mortensen from Eastern Promises and without the tattoos but with the hair of Michio Kaku.

I borrowed little from my life to create Mai Fisher, but Alexei Bukharin is an homage to three men who helped shaped my life for the better: Ilya Kuryakin, without whom I wouldn’t have started writing; my dad, who had unwavering belief in me; and my ex, who showed me what love was.

And, yes, I still have a thing for Russians.