5719 in-depth character profiles from comics, games, movies

The Black Widow (Natalya Romanova) (Marvel Comics) as a 1960s femme fatale

Black Widow

(Natalia Romanova profile #1 - 1927-1965)


Context

This is the first of a chronological series of profiles for the Black Widow (Natalia Romanova, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff).

This one covers her tangled origins and the numerous flashbacks to her early life. It incorporates and extensively discusses all known retcons as of the Spring of 2012.

It is followed by the . So scroll back here and click on the link once you’re done. 🙂

The Black Widow is the product of a secret Soviet program to produce extraordinarily skilled female spies, with a slightly superhuman metabolism. This program is called the Red Room. Since our profiles traditionally start by discussing powers and abilities, we’ll start by reviewing the Red Room enhancements and techniques.

Notes

  • We haven’t yet run extensive research to recoup Natalia’s past with flashbacks for James “Bucky” Barnes career as the Winter Soldier.
  • The summary in Marvel’s Black Widow Saga (appended to the first issue of Black Widow (2010 miniseries)) doesn’t quite match the flashbacks in Wolverine : Origins and Black Widow: Deadly Origin. Not knowing whether that was a mistake or an unusual retcon, we’ve stuck with the flashbacks.
  • Our writeups describe Natalia as a KGB agent since that is what was in the Cold War comic books, back when the KGB was the great boogeyman. In actuality she was presumably a GRU operative.

Background

  • Real Name: Natalia Alianovna Romanova (previously Natalia Alianovna Shostakova). Her first name is occasionally rendered in Latin alphabet as Natalya.
  • Other Aliases: Madame Natasha, Natasha Romanoff (anglicised version of her name, and thus the most common version in the US), Czarina (nickname from both Ivan Petrovich and “Oksana Bolishinko”), черная жемчужина (“Black Pearl”, a nickname used by Commissar Bruskin and Ivan Petrovitch – “chyornaya zhemchuzhina”), The Girl Who Can Lift Mountains (when she stole Stark’s antigravity device), Чёрная вдова (“Black Widow” in Russian – “chyornaya vdova”).
  • Marital Status: Widowed.
  • Known Relatives: Alexei Shostakov (aka Red Guardian, husband, officially deceased) ; Vindiktor (alleged brother, deceased). Given her patronymic Natalia’s father was presumably named Alian. Both her parents are thought to have been deceased by the time Ivan unofficially adopted Natalia.
  • Group Affiliation: KGB operative.
  • Base Of Operations: Mother Russia.
  • Height: 5’7” Weight: 138 lbs.
  • Eyes: Striking blue Hair: Red-auburn (usually dyed black – see the Description section).


Powers and Abilities

During this era, the Widow normally operates as a seducer and femme fatale. In KGB slang she’s a ласточка (“lastochka”, meaning “swallow” ; male agents doing the same job were also birds as “ravens”). Her assets are thus her intelligence, beauty and manipulative skill, and she has ample amounts of all of those.

Romanova is often considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful women. Combined with her wiles, this has been known to have guys make really, really stupid things for her. Sometimes after she openly admitted that she was manipulating them.

Natalia was trained since childhood as a spy, actress, martial artist, athlete, acrobat, pilot, markswoman, assassin, special operations soldier, survival expert, etc.. She was already an excellent actress and manipulator, and a proficient killer and shooter, by age 10 or 11.

Her full skills roster as an agent during the 1940s and 1950s is not really documented. The numbers in our game stats are reasonable guesses, but most are not backed by hard data.

Mind repurposed

However, after 1957, she forgets that she knows all these skills. She is then retrained as a manipulator, seducer and spy.

During flashbacks set during the 1960s, Romanova is a skilled pilot and gunwoman, so it is possible she was further retrained in these fields. But these skills never appear in vintage material, only in retcons. The vintage appearances purely depict her as a clever and manipulative femme fatale.

Kudrin enhancements

The girls in the Black Widow program, including Natalia, received extensive biochemical treatments. Theyse were designed by a Soviet genius, professor Kudrin. They bolster the subject’s constitution to peak human levels. Meaning maxed out endurance, pain resistance, temperature extremes tolerance, power of recovery, etc..

They constantly repair the subject’s body:

  • Wounds close at four times the human norm and heal without a trace.
  • Toxins and pathogens are attacked by a superhumanly efficient immune system.
  • Infection is much less likely to occur than it should.
  • Ageing is constantly erased.
  • Malady seldom if ever occurs.
  • The subject effortlessly retains good looks. Hair never falls out and always remains shiny, skin cannot be damaged by wind or sun and always remains healthy, etc..
  • Pregnancies are also immediately miscarried.

Black Widow as a child, with Ivan in Madripoor

Psychotechnical means were employed to make the Widows unaware that they were slightly superhuman. Until 2004 Natalia didn’t know that she had powers. Even though by the 1970s it had become obvious that she wasn’t ageing normally. But then even that could be normal in a super-heroes world – see our Leòn genetic sequence article.

Our hypothesis is that the manifest benefits from the Kudrin treatment are only active when the Widow is sleeping or unconscious. She cannot use them consciously, since she simply doesn’t know these exist. Her history does include several miraculous recoveries, all her wounds kept healing without a trace, etc.. So this is an inobstrusive approach that melds with genre conventions.

Kudrin was also forced to add a failsafe to her enhancements. All women who received the treatment have a psychological susceptibility toward persons wearing a specific chemical scent. They also have a compulsion not to attack them (in DC Heroes RPG terms a CIA not to attack and a -2 CS OV/RV Vulnerability vs Persuasion attempts). This scent can credibly be worn as an aftershave.

The Widow only encountered this scent twice. Nick Fury has been wearing it since the 1960s, and a Red Room enforcer later used it against her.

No equivalent enhancement program could be developed for male agents. It seems that those attempts that were made turned the agents into sociopathic killers.

Pchelintsov conditioning

All Black Widow agents also received extensive psychotechnical conditioning designed by Professor Pchelintsov. This gave them various false sets of memories so they could operate under very deep cover. The conditioning wasn’t perfect though. Conflicts and inconsistencies could be noticed by the smartest (and/or unluckiest) ones.

Thus, another subconscious programming was added. If a Black Widow tries to think logically, rationally about her past and detects contradictions and inconsistencies she feels unease, then confusion, then pain, then severe pain. Even with her enhanced physiology.

Usually, this functions at an undetectable level. Some random idea association that, explored further, might make the agent realise that something about her past seems off will be associated with slight anxiety. As a result, the agent will change her train of thought without consciously realising what happened.

In a comic book world, one suspects that this conditioning might also overcome a telepath attempting to mind-probe the past of a Black Widow, through sympathetic pain.

Pchelintsov conditioning can also simulate physical training. For instance, Romanova is an excellent ballerina, yet her memories of having studied ballet dancing for years are now thought to all have been fictional memory implants.


Journey into mystery – the Red Room

One of the main mysteries is the nature of an espionage training program called the Red Room. It plays a critical role in Natalia Romanova’s life.

For decades the Black Widow program was thought to have been a Cold War program to train the deadliest female spy in the world. It eventually emerged that some sort of training facility called the Red Room was behind the Black Widow program. But back then it was assumed to have been some sort of collection of KGB experts training and mentoring the most promising girls the KGB could recruit.

In more recent years four things became obvious :

  1. The Red Room and its Black Widow program are significantly older than the Cold War.
  2. A mysterious person called Romulus was behind it. Romulus is apparently an ancient, inhuman mastermind with some sort of ties with Wolverine. But this is exceptionally unclear.
  3. The Red Room wasn’t simply a training facility. It also employed biochemical enhancements for its agents. Furthermore, it implanted them with false memories reminiscent of those used by the Weapon Plus program in NATO countries.
  4. “Who runs the Red Room and what is their agenda” apparently has a very complicated answer. In part because the answer apparently changed several times over the decades. It is even possible that there are several organisations called the Red Room. Or that changes were so sweeping on one or more occasion that the organisation was completely transformed.

You want the truth ?

Based on 2004 information, it seems that the Red Room enlisted 27 or 28 little girls to make them undetectable deep-cover agents to infiltrate China and the West. The core methodology was designed by Gregor Ivanovich Pchelintsov, professor of psychotechnics. It allowed for imprinting people with almost completely fabricated memories.

Furthermore, the girls all received a special treatment designed by Lyudmila Antonovna Kudrin, a biochemist. The Kudrin treatment could make women stay young for many decades, as well as superhumanly healthy and resilient. It apparently was meant as an asset both for agent-type work and for seduction.

The Black Widow program was apparently meant for realistic espionage and infiltration. As opposed to the the far more… kinetic pursuits of Natalia Romanova in more recent decades.

You can’t handle the truth !

As we labour to reconcile as many accounts as possible, we reach the hypothesis that the Red Room training took place in several distinct stages. Not because it is stated (it certainly wasn’t) but because it allows various, superficially contradictory accounts to all be true.

The History section will use this sequencing without further comments but, again, this is hypothetical. The rough stages are :

  • 1934-1938 – the girls are trained as child assassins and child spies, using then-traditional methods.
  • 1938-1939/40 – Natalia (and presumably the others) receive their first infiltration mission, perhaps as a sort of exam or weeding out process.
  • 1940-1941 – the least problematic dates for the first stages of the Kudrin treatments and first stages of the Pchelintsov conditioning to take place.
  • 1941-1945 – the program is interrupted by the Great Patriotic War . The young Black Widows are deployed among the Red Army as irregular assets. During the war Natalia becomes pregnant but spontaneously aborts. This miscarriage is our main reason to suspect that she has received at least part of the Kudrin treatment just before the war.
  • 1945-late 1940s – the least problematic dates for the remainder of the Kudrin treatments and the remainder of the Pchelintsov conditioning to take place.
  • The activities of the Red Room past that point are very much unclear.

Later on

Further confusing the issue, the GRU developed another Red Room program in the late 1970s. It was intended to produce a Black Widow patterned after Natalia Romanova – a super-agent lady. Basically, this new Black Widow program was making a reality out of the disinformation. Thus, it also helped hide what the real project had been.

This Red Room program successfully trained their agent, Yelena Belova. But she soon left the service.

Part of the original Red Room program survive nowadays as the research company 2R. It develops cosmetics and drugs – chiefly for American firms.


History

The Widow’s biography is a borscht . And it is likely to remain that way.

The situation is very similar to Wolverine’s :

  • She’s been around for quite a while.
  • Many of her memories are fabricated and much of the rest is suspect.
  • Her age is impossible to determine as she ages very slowly.
  • Everything about her is wrapped in lies, manipulations and secrets from powerful conspiracies.

There are conflicting accounts about her life. Even her likely date of birth ranges from the 1920s to the 1940s. Within her biography, the lines between continuity problems and in-universe disinformation blurs in an amusing way. And things that were thought true were later contradicted then revealed to have been deliberate manipulations of Natalia’s memories.

In this section, we’ll see how the various accounts can be reconciled. Speculation — which is inevitable given the information available — will as usual be clearly marked.

We serve an old man in a dry season

Natalia was reportedly born in Stalingrad (now Volgograd). An unidentified woman in a destroyed building handed the baby over to a Red Army soldier named Ivan Petrovitch. She asked him to take care of the infant. She also told Ivan that she was a Romanova, with the implication that she was a relative to the Imperial family  that ruled until 1917.

The building then collapsed, killing all occupants.

The incident was originally thought to have taken place in late 1942, early during the Battle of Stalingrad. More recent accounts state that it took place in 1928, during some unspecified terrorist raid by “imperialists”. The chronology in this article uses the 1928 date.

Ivanovna

Ivan was reportedly searching the ruins for his kid sister, whom he never found. Bereft of his little sister, he essentially adopted the baby he had been entrusted with. How old Natalia was when she was thrusted into Ivan’s hands depends on the accounts. These range from a baby to a girl looking about five or six. We will assume here that she was about one year old.

Government researchers stated that Natalia was an orphan. It seems likely that Ivan attempted to locate her parents early on. But –presumably — nobody ever found them and the kid was declared an orphan in Ivan Petrovitch’s care.

Ivan Petrovitch Bezukhov was some sort of two-fisted pulps  adventurer. A strongman, a brawler, an engineer, an inventor, a soldier and a well-connected patriot. He also had many secrets… including which organisation he approached in the 1930s to raise and train little Natalia.

The infiltration of the Romanoff network, part 1

Our interpretation is that Natalia began training with the Red Room since before she was 10. 1934 would be a credible recruitment date. According to one flashback, the Red Room was already using the black widow symbol — a red hourglass logo, like the marking on a black widow spider  — when Natalia was a child.

The early Black Widow during the Cold War

Natalia’s first known mission started in early 1938 when she was about 11. She was to infiltrate the espionage network of one Taras Romanoff. He was a redoubtable Russian spymaster, coincidentally sharing her last name.

It was Ivan who approached Taras. He explained that he was looking for a good place to raise his little Natalia. Bezukhov knew that Romanoff was running some sort of espionage academy in Moscow, where young girls were trained to become spies and agents. As such, this institution resembled the Red Room. But whether there was a connection between the two is unknown.

The infiltration of the Romanoff network, part 2

Mr. Romanoff was reluctant to take the girl under his wing. But Joseph Stalin himself encouraged him, amused by the idea of a Soviet spy being a purported relative of Nikolai II. The Secretary General’s sudden appearance, conveniently forcing Romanoff’s hand, seems rather suspect. It may have been engineered – for instance using an impostor.

Natalia studied under Taras from 1938 until late 1939 or early 1940. She simulated growing attached to him as if he were her father, calling him “dad”. She even claimed not to remember about Ivan Petrovitch.

Some months after taking Natalia in, Taras Romanoff faked his death and disappeared. He took Natalia with him. At this point, he was calling her his daughter, and seemed to treat her as such. Taras took Natalia on a train, and had his men attack it. They killed everyone aboard so Taras and Natalia would be presumed dead at the hand of merciless bandits.

As the attack took place Taras approached a Canadian traveller called Logan, and told him to join him and be given safe passage. Logan sensibly took the offer.

Dreams of sleepers…

Logan was then a quasi-amnesiac, and unknowingly an agent of Romulus. He had been sent to establish how much Taras knew about his master.

Taras seemed to know this, but he nevertheless took Logan in and made him his apprentice. Romanoff apparently thought that he could turn Logan into a close ally – perhaps he and the diminutive Canadian shared a past Logan couldn’t remember.

Taras Romanoff cryptically stated that Logan had been “sent [to him] to learn”. Natalya would later also state that she had been “sent [to Taras] to learn”, reinforcing our impression that both Logan and Natalia were working for Romulus.

However, both the Canadian and the kid had secret orders to kill each other. As far as Logan knew, Natalia was Taras’ little protégée and was to be eliminated if Taras was. As far as Natalia knew, eliminating Logan was a test she had to pass – presumably to graduate to the next step of her training program.

It is possible that she knew from the beginning that a man called Logan would be sent to approach Romanoff.

… and White treason

Both Natalia and Logan trained extensively under Taras, who seemingly trusted them both. He taught them his body of techniques, which Wolverine later described as one of the birthplaces of modern espionage.

The Black Widow as a child, and Wolverine

Logan and Natalia bonded during these two years. He discreetly taught the girl hand-to-hand combat. That made Taras jealous, as Natalia took to calling Logan “little uncle”. While this is a common term of endearment in Russia, Romanoff felt that the Canadian was displacing him in his paternal role.

It was Natalia who struck first – in 1939 or 1940, depending upon accounts. She killed Taras’ guards to simulate her own kidnapping. Then she laid in ambush in the woods nearby. Her strategy was to wait for Logan and Taras to discover the bodies and rush out to locate and rescue her. At this point she would snipe Logan.

However, Logan realised what was going on. He warned Taras that it was a trap. As Taras hesitated Logan shot him dead. The exact reason is unclear. Perhaps Logan had determined that Romanoff knew too much. Or perhaps he realised at this point that the trap was set for him rather than Taras.

Logan then located Natalia. But neither could bring themselves to pull the trigger. Logan found a way out by taking the medallion Taras had given Natalia. He brought it back to his masters as a “proof” of her death.

(In 2007, Natalia and Logan reminisced about these events, and seemed to share the same recollections about what had happened.)

We dream of rain and the history of the gun

Natalia lived in the wilds close to the manor for three months, apparently waiting for Ivan. Ivan did find her, having learned of Taras’ death then having located the manor. He obviously knew that Natalia had not died in the train attack, and seemed to know what her mission was.

Natalia told Ivan that Logan’s mission had been to kill Romanoff all along. She added that she had let him go because she liked him better than Taras. Ivan immediately concluded that they had to flee, as “they” would blame Natalia and execute him. Apparently, he was referring to Taras Romanoff’s allies and network of informants, not the Red Room.

Despite apparently failing her “test” Natalia continued to work for the Red Room. Or at least for Romulus, since one gets the impression that “who is running the Red Room” was a torturous issue at this point.

What happened between 1939 and 1941 is unrevealed. But this is the least problematic span of time for Natalia to have undergone the next stage of Red Room preparation. Thus, this is likely when she was implanted with fake memories by the Red Room scientists in Moscow. If so, it is likely that the treatment was interrupted by the war – and resumed by 1945.

I’m living in films for the sake of Russia

One “track” of artificial memories seems to have been given to all the Black Widow agents. Apparently, they all remember having been little ballerinas selected to join the Bolshoi  itself, and training under its instructors to become star dancers.

They seemingly all remember studying under “Alex Sterelny”, who apparently never existed, and “Oksana Bolishinko”. Natalia would much later meet an Oksana Bolishinko who remembered her as a ballerina.

The ballerina memories were chosen as something most girls would like. They would find these slightly fairy-tale-ish childhood memories soothing, remain fond of them, and thus become reticent to consider they might be fakes even if presented with evidence or incongruities.

It was also meant for them to reflexively associate the Soviet Union with some of its most admirable features, such as the Bolshoi Ballet, to reinforce their patriotism.

The Black Widow as a child, and Wolverine

For a gifted girl dancer, joining the Bolshoi as a trainee would likely take place circa age 9 or 10. Performing with the troupe would start circa 16 or 17.

Since Natalia remembers performing professionally with the troupe, it seems likely that the Bolshoi memory implants cover age 9 to 18 or so. They likely are intended to “overwrite” the time spent training and working for the Red Room, plus her activities during World War Two. Natalia genuinely thought that she had spent her teens as a ballerina until an investigation in 2004.

Oksana

One suspects that the “Oksana Bolishinko” whom Romanova met was a Red Room deep cover control agent. The idea likely was that any Black Widow attempting to investigate her past would naturally look for Bolishinko. Oksana was the person with whom their fondest memories were associated.

“Oksana Bolishinko” did confirm the ballerina memories when Natalia Romanova encountered her. Years later, the Widow reached the conclusion that almost all her pleasant childhood memories had been fabricated, all but confirming that “Oksana” was a fake.

She also deduced what the Pchelintsov failsafes had previously prevented her from realising. Her body did not bear any of the physical damage associated with intensive ballet training during childhood.

Madripoor 1941 (part 1)

In 1941, Natalia and Ivan were in Madripoor. Romulus’ long-standing alliance with the Hand had gone sour, and he wanted to kill their current leader (solely known as “the jonin”) to make his point.

Romulus, who has been documented to psychically influence dreams, arranged for the jonin to mystically perceive that Natalia had an amazing talent for the martial arts. He would surely attempt to kidnap her and expose himself to being murdered by the kid.

Since the Hand wanted to capture Natalia then have her kill Ivan Petrovitch, they might have sought to use the process later employed to turn Drake and then Elektra into their deadliest female killer.

Assassinating the jonin would also prevent an alliance of the Hand with the Nazis. Baron Wolfgang Strucker had been developing his ties with Japanese occult sects, and was already in talks with the Hand in Madripoor.

Madripoor 1941 (part 2)

Romulus’ local agent, Seraph, had her main enforcer Logan keep an eye on Strucker and Hand operatives, as backup. Captain America (Steve Rogers, then at the beginning of his career) was also present in Madripoor for unknown reasons.

Montage about the Black Widow's youth

The Hand and the Nazis kidnapped Natalia as planned, even though Captain America came to help when he saw Ivan fighting the kidnappers. Ivan, Logan and Cap fought to rescue Natalia, the last two not suspecting that she was an assassin.

Logan was successful, but Natalia puzzlingly lashed out and stealthily shot the Canadian in the heart. Apparently there had been some sort of mind games. She now thought that she wasn’t actually a Romanova and resented Logan for having let her live.

Logan survived, and killed the jonin himself so Natalia wouldn’t have to. Seraph came to the rescue and exfiltrated Ivan and Natalia back to Russia as planned.

(In 1990, Natalia and Logan reminisced about these events. But it is unclear whether Natalia remembered having been sent as an assassin rather than having been a kidnapping victim. No mention was made of Natalia shooting Logan during their conversations, and they may not have remembered that part.)

The Great Patriotic War

Ivan and Natalia’s return to the Soviet Union likely was tied to Operation Barbarossa  and the war, Ivan being a Red Army serviceman. One assumes that whatever Ivan wanted to flee after Taras Romanoff’s death had been dealt with.

Natalia thus served during the Great Patriotic War. One incident is documented, presumably set in early 1944 or late 1943 as she was aged about 16. The men in the unit were obviously very fond and protective of her. Perhaps the Red Room students had been deployed to both fight and bolster morale.

She seemed to be giving orders, and was wearing a efreitor insignia (a loose equivalent of a corporal). But the art may not be accurate though, as they are anachronistically wielding AK-47s.

Nikolai and Rose

Natalia fell in love with a soldier named Nikolai, who was but one year older than she was. In the throes of adolescence and battlefield emotions, the couple declared itself married and Natalia became pregnant.

Black Widow flashback narration sequence

She gave birth in Slovakia – back then the Slovak Republic. Thus, it seems that she kept fighting until water broke, and was part of the Red Army troops who drove German occupiers out of the Slovak Republic. Nikolai was killed some weeks or months before the pregnancy’s end.

A kind Slovak midwife helped the teenaged Soviet soldier through her labour. However, the baby was stillborn – presumably due to the Kudrin enhancements. The midwife and her family helped Natalia hold herself together. The corpse was buried in the nearby Dobročsky forest .

For years Natalia Romanova would regularly return to the midwife’s house to grieve alone in the forest. She’d also bury a rose near the grave. Apparently she had planned to name her stillborn daughter Rose.

When the midwife passed away during the 1950s, Romanova couldn’t find the strength to come back to Dobročsky. The midwife’s daughter kept mementos in case she’d return. One was the little ribbon Natalia and Nikolai had used as a make-do wedding ring.

Birth of the Cold War

What happened between 1945 and 1956 is unrevealed. However, the second half of the 1940s is the least problematic era for the rest of the Red Room memories implantation, biochemical modifications and special training to have taken place.

The late 1940s are also the least problematic time span for Natalia and Ivan to have trained with Commissar Bruskin, a renowned KGB senior officer. Bruskin was apparently very close to his two students, and would contact them for help in 1976. He nicknamed the young Natalia “the Black Pearl”.

At some point between 1941 and 1956, Natalia and Ivan left the USSR. They apparently lived as international adventurers and no longer were on speaking terms with the government. The timing and nature of these events is unrevealed.

Documentation restarts in 1956 with Ivan and Natalia in Berlin. At this point Natalia looked in her 20s, though the art style prevents a reliable assessment.

It is possible that their relationship with the Party went sour right after Stalin’s death (1953). This guess is based on a flashback about Ivan’s life – see his writeups.org profile.

After Stalin’s death, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev  discovered the plots that had been running under his predecessor. He was horrified by the brainwashing of little Soviet girls by the Red Room. His intent was to peacefully retire the Black Widow agents, but Natalia and Ivan were either unreachable or did not agree to come back to USSR.

A white house in a red square

However, Ivan was fatally wounded by a gunshot in 1956 in Berlin, where he and Natalia had been fighting gangs. James “Bucky” Barnes, the Soviet super-agent code-named Winter Soldier, reached them as Natalia was attempting to save Ivan’s life.

He made them a strange offer. A rare chemical that would save Ivan’s life and prolong the lifespan of both Ivan and Natalia if they agreed to come back. Ivan tried to warn Natalia about something but passed out, and Natalia took the offer to save him.

The Black Widow and the Winter Soldiers during their training

The nature of the chemical, and its relationship with the Kudrin treatment, is unclear. A likely hypothesis is that it was a complete lie, since Natalia unknowingly already had a potent anagathic factor . But this leaves open the case of Ivan. His ageing stopped or dramatically slowed down at an unknown point, and he seems to be permanently in his late 40s.

Perhaps Ivan passed out as he was trying to tell Natalia that it was a lie and that neither of them would age. Since there are vague hints that Ivan was already unageing by the 1950s.

While these are complete hypotheticals on our part, taking the statement at face value — that there were Soviet agents in the 1950s running around with longevity/healing potions in order to offer them to soon-to-be-inactive operatives — is considerably harder on suspension of disbelief.

Winter is coming

As she returned to Soviet service, Natalia had a clandestine relationship with the Winter Soldier. It lasted for a few months after the Berlin encounter in 1956. The two arranged to have the Soldier instruct Natalia in advanced hand-to-hand combat, so they could spend more time together.

This relationship was apparently intense enough for the couple to keep vivid memories of it for nearly 50 years – and recover their romantic and sexual chemistry when reunited.

The affair was conducted in secret as it was against all regulations. Karpov, the Winter Soldier’s boss, violently disapproved.

But the two lovers were discovered. The Winter Soldier was disciplined and returned to cold storage for a few months since his conditioning had to be reinforced.

Turn the gold to chrome

Natalia’s life completely changed in 1957. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but our best bet is :

  1. Khrushchev wanted to locate and peacefully retire those Black Widows who could be found. It was apparently decided to re-use Red Room treatments or something similar to make them forget that they had been agents.
  2. Natalia was very confused. She simultaneously remembered her life and at least one fictional account of her life. She couldn’t even tell whether she was 17 or 29. She gave her dates of birth of either 1928 or 1940, which is coherent with her known biographies.
    Whether this was a consequence of trying to re-implant her with fabricated memories, or the reason why the government tried to give her new memories as she was breaking down, is unrevealed.
  3. It stands to reason that the retired Widows would remember having been ballerinas, then having had an ordinary life. The conditioning would presumably cheat by making them think that they were much younger than they actually were. Thus Natalia now remembered having been born in 1940, and having been a student and then a performer with the Bolshoi ballet before retiring in 1957.

In 1958, she married a famous hero of the Soviet Union. The dashing test pilot Alexei Shostakov was apparently a personal friend of Khrushchev, and knew the truth about his wife.

The early Black Widow flying a Soviet plane

Alexei and Natalia lived together for five years. Though the marriage was rocky, it seems that they genuinely loved each other. These years remain an important part of Natalia’s life. She wanted to be a housewife and a mother, and was hurt to discover that she was sterile.

To have the Widow retired was apparently a decision taken jointly by Nikita Khrushchev and Ivan Petrovitch. Both men had clearly known each other for years if not decades, and were friends.

This being the 1950s, it is likely that the sheer creepiness of Khrushchev handing over to his buddy Shostakov a brainwashed (and stunningly beautiful) wife did not register with any of the three men. They likely thought that they were doing a good deed by giving her such a prestigious husband for her new life.

Now you are truly a widow, comrade

In 1963, Shostakov’s death was faked during an accident at Baikonur . That was so he could become the newest Red Guardian, a costumed patriotic hero of the Soviet Union. The shock of this death apparently weakened his wife’s conditioning, as she now confusingly knew that she somehow had the skills to serve the State.

As the widow of a national hero she demanded to see the Chairman. Natalia Shostakova blamed the Americans for the space race  that had taken her husband from her. She demanded that Khrushchev make her a spy to strike back at the Westerners. Though she was unable to explain why she thought she’d be a deadly spy, she was determined to get her revenge.

Khrushchev and Petrovitch saw that Romanova’s re-conditioning had obviously failed. The Chairman thus agreed to Shostakova’s demands to be made a spy and unleashed against the West. Both men hoped that the widow would eventually build a life for herself abroad.

This is likely at that point that Natalia was trained by Colonel Irma Klausvichnova, an expert KGB operative. This was presumably because she couldn’t consciously remember her Red Room training. What Klausvichnova taught the Widow saved her life several times during the 1960s. However, the Colonel was assassinated by MI-6 during the 1970s.

The 52 daughters of the Revolution

This is presumably circa 1963 that Soviet intelligence started a successful disinformation campaign about the Red Room program. Perhaps it was directed by Colonel Klausvichnova. The goal was to make the West and China think that the Red Room was a Cold War program to train a single super-agent – the deadliest Soviet operative of them all.

This agent would be a woman, as the KGB considered that women had an edge operating as spies in male-dominated societies. The super-agent would thus be code-named “Black Widow” as a symbol of something female and particularly deadly.

It was thought that the “Black Widow” they’d produce was intended from the start to become an espionage legend. She would be a symbol of the KGB’s power and a reminder that the Soviet Union was the society of the future, free from sexism.

The KGB’s Black Widow was often thought to be propaganda, a Cold War bogeywoman. Most modern Russians think that she was a myth from the waning Stalin years.

By 1963, the widow Shostakova was thus a KGB agent under the code name Black Widow. This added a further layer of deception by reusing the name of the program that had trained her during childhood as the name of a single person trained for high-level subornation.

Flight of the swallow

Natalia was re-trained as a “swallow bird” — a female seduction and manipulation expert — and extensively travelled in Western Europe and Northern America.

Using an anglicised version of her name as “Natasha Romanoff”, the gorgeous Natalia preyed on young technology brokers. Then she had them killed off by KGB hitmen once she had stolen all their secrets for the Soviet Union.

If you are using a by-date-of-publication timeline for the Marvel Universe as we do, she is active in the US by the next year —Tales of Suspense #52, in 1964. If you are using the official ten-year sliding time scale, Deadly Origin #2 establishes that she was active in Europe for several decades, seducing and killing numerous technologists.

The early Black Widow is kidnapped by her KGB colleagues

Interestingly, people did notice what was going on and that Natasha Romanoff didn’t seem to age a day. She was coincidentally nicknamed “the Black Widow” as her lovers kept dying in troubling circumstances. This added yet another layer of misdirection as to what “Black Widow” means.

One of Natalia’s first missions after Shostakov’s “death” had her rendezvous with would-be revolutionary Danny French in the US. They investigated the shadowy Project Four, which would later be revealed to be the brainchild of millionaire Damon Dran, aka the Indestructible Man.

However, French was unreliable. He also kept behaving inappropriately toward Shostakova. French accidentally killed the scientists at Project Four, then fled with the mysterious artefact they had been building. Natalia had to leave empty-handed, though Dran and French would again cross her path in 1972.

A snikt in time

Shostakova is also known to have carried out two missions outside of her usual fare during the 1960s. In 1964 or 1965, she was a KGB pilot operating in the Soviet Union. She nearly foiled a daring CIA plot to sabotage the Red Storm secret project. The CIA agents were Benjamin Grimm, Logan and Carol Danvers.

Though she was successfully chasing the fleeing CIA agents, Shostakova was ordered not to fire at the last second. The order came to her relief, as she respected Danvers’ piloting skills and did not wish to kill her. Logan thought that Shostakova looked weirdly familiar, but did not have access to the relevant memories at this point.

A brief flashback also displays the Widow surveilling Logan (who had become amnesiac after major upgrades from Weapon X) to prevent his capture and recruitment by Hydra. She intervened with a rocket launcher to stop Hydra agents and left. Logan returned to Canada and his friends Mac and Heather Hudson.

The Hydra incident is impossible to place in time. Based on our timelines for the Widow, Nick Fury and Carol Danvers, 1964 works fine. However, this date clashes with the timelines for Wolverine.

Our Alpha Flight timeline suggests 1968 as the year when Mac and Heather find Wolverine in the wilderness, and official Marvel data implies 1973 or 1974 (Wolverine : Weapon X Files , published 2009).

A lighthouse keeper in the desert sun

Natalia’s best-known work as a 1960s KGB femme fatale involved Tony Stark. Anton Vanko, the creator of the Soviet Crimson Dynamo armor, had defected to the US and was hired by Stark. In 1964 the Widow was ordered to fix that.

Back then, Shostakova was partnered with the engineer, strongman and killer Boris Turgenov. She charmed Stark to distract him. This created an opening for Turgenov to steal the Crimson Dynamo suit and wreck Stark’s plants. However, Turgenov and Vanko killed each other.

Natalia chose to stay in the US. She feared that the KGB would sanction her if she returned after this failure. Perhaps the switch from Khrushchev to Brezhnev  had deprived of her allies within the KGB.

She decided to regain cred by stealing an anti-gravity device developed by Stark – since the American didn’t know yet that she was KGB. Shostakova used the device for sabotage, lifting entire buildings in the air. The crowning moment of her campaign of mayhew was lifting a whole mountain in the air to expose the hiding place for the American gold reserve.

However, Iron Man nullified her device. She narrowly escaped, but Stark now knew that she was KGB.

Mother Russia, Mother Russia

Madame Natasha — as she was often called back then — soon stumbled upon Hawkeye (Clint Barton). He was an adventurer mistaken for a criminal by the police. Telling him that she was an adventurer fighting for world peace by sabotaging weapons merchants, she convinced him to steal plans from Tony Stark.

Hawkeye fought Iron Man, but Natalia was accidentally hurt by an explosion. As a result, Hawkeye fled so he could carry her to safety.

After she recovered, the KGB sent Natasha against a rival of Stark’s, Williams Innovations. Spider-Man opposed her and Hawkeye. Hawkeye realised that she was manipulating him, but could not leave her.

(If using a sliding ten-year timeline, Deadly Origin retcons her activities prior to the Heroic Age as private sector industrial espionage, and being hired to manipulate super-heroes and similar nuisances into fighting each other. In this version, Stark fully realised what she was up to and broke up before she’d make her move.)

Natasha later sent Hawkeye out on a second attempt to steal Stark’s plans. However, while Hawkeye was gone, she was kidnapped by the KGB and returned to Russia. Ironically, she was apparently starting to feel some genuine tenderness for Hawkeye, whereas he was getting disillusioned with both her and himself.

(This is continued in the ).


Description

In her vintage appearances Natalia has black hair in a 1960s do. But in flashbacks she’s often depicted with red hair, and with the same long hair and fringe cut she had in the 1970s.

Natalia usually seems to have black hair that she dyes red. However, starting with books published in 1990 she seems to be a natural redhead, as flashbacks now consistently depict a red-haired little girl rather than a black-haired one. The most recent Marvel sourcebooks have her as a redhead who used to dye her hair black.

Natasha Romanoff has been described on several occasions as one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Some flashbacks depict Natalia as having pale skin as a child or teenager, but most of the time she has the same skin tone as people around her.

For what it’s worth the illustration depicting her training with a H&K MP5 slung on her back is as much as an anachronism as the AK-47s during the Great Patriotic War. In the real world his couldn’t have happened before 1966. But perhaps some small arms research program went faster in the Marvel Universe as a side effect of all the super-weapons research during World War Two.


Personality

During her femme fatale years, the Black Widow is a vamp who is incredibly cold inside.

Despite her charms and ability to wrap men around her fingers, she is still devastated by the loss of her husband. As intended by the KGB, the “death” of Alexei made her fearless and fanatical in her devotion to Mother Russia. As she has nothing to lose, the Black Widow repeatedly proves herself a top spy.

She generally comes across as cold, haughty and proud of her reputation. In the original stories she had something of a criminal and vain streak. She once stole jewels just because she could (and found them pretty).

Her love for Hawkeye mollified her. She eventually decided to give up the Cold War and make a life for herself in America with her lover. This is exactly what Khrushchev hoped that she would do, and this is exactly what the Brezhnev-era men nearly killed her for.

Natalia appears to be very romantic and passionate. This is typical 1960s stuff for a Russian comic book character.

In retcons, she appeared more as the straight-shooting, noble adversary respecting the prowess of her opponents and playing the espionage game as a sort of balls-to-the-wall competition.


Quotes

“You sent for me, comrade leader ?”

KGB officer: “I must inform you that your husband Alexei was killed today — when his experimental rocket exploded ! However, you will be glad to know he died a hero… testing weapons for use against our enemies !”
Natalia: “If… if only I could do something… to be worthy of his memory…”
KGB officer: “Perhaps… there is something !”

“I am one whose sting is most venomous, colonel Fury… if you attempt to follow me.”

“Anthony Stark was interested in me before… Like most Americans, he is sympathetic… and therefore weak ! This tender little note may revive his interest !”

“It is fortunate that he is taken with my beauty ! I will be able to twist him around my little finger ! But he must not learn that I am really a Red spy !”

Widow: “The famous Iron Man is a mortal enemy of mine ! Any man who could defeat him would be a man I could learn to love !”
Hawkeye: “He’s as good as beaten, baby !”


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Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG Print Friendly

Tell me more about the game stats

Natasha Romanoff

Dex: 04 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Upholding Russia
Int: 06 Wil: 05 Min: 04 Occupation: Communist !
Inf: 06 Aur: 05 Spi: 05 Resources {or Wealth}: 005
Init: 018 HP: 025

Powers:
Iron Will: 01, Regeneration: 01, Systemic Antidote: 02, Damage Capacity: 03

Bonuses and Limitations:

  • All Powers are only active when asleep, knocked out or otherwise unconscious.
  • All Powers are Form Function.
  • Regeneration affects all three Current Conditions.

Skills:
After 1963, Natalia uses the following Skills – Artist (Actress): 07, Artist (Dancer): 07, Artist (Photographer): 03, Charisma (Persuasion, Interrogation): 06, Detective (Legwork): 05, Vehicles (Land): 04.
She is also trained in Vehicles (Air): 06 and Weaponry (Firearms, Heavy): 05 but these are only shown in flashbacks – not in vintage appearances.

Skills:
Prior to 1957, her skills roster probably looks like this – Acrobatics: 04, Artist (Actress): 07, Artist (Dancer): 07, Charisma: 05, Detective (Legwork): 05, Gadgetry (Identify Gadget): 03, Martial artist: 05, Medicine (First aid): 03, Military science (Camouflage, cartography, danger recognition, demolition): 05, Vehicles (Air, Land, Water): 05, Thief: 05, Weaponry: 05

Advantages:
Attractive, Credentials (Red Army, Medium ; KGB, Low), Expertise (Espionage, Wilderness survival), Familiarity (US military secrets, Military Equipment and Protocols), Language (Russian), Rich Friend (KGB), Slowed Ageing.

Connections:
KGB (Low), Boris Turgenov (High), Ivan Petrovitch (High).

Drawbacks:
Dark Secret (Red spy !), Misc.: the Widow is sterile, Misc.: Kudrin failsafe scent, Pchelintsov failsafes (see below). Later in that era, Exile (Involuntary).

Equipment:
Her purse held a dose of paralyzing gas [BODY 02, Paralysis: 06, Ammo: 01, Limitation: Paralysis has No Range, and can be defended against with measures against toxic gases]. The Widow could procure all sorts of weapons and espionage equipment, but seldom used this sort of things during this part of her career.


Design Notes

Some of our game stats for the Black Window during the 1960s (in DC Heroes her DEX, MIN and SPI) are guesses based upon her retconned-in background. It is possible that they were lower during her time as a femme fatale, though it’s impossible to tell as she doesn’t take physical action during the vintage Tales of Suspense stories.



Game Stats — DC Adventures RPG Print Friendly

Tell me more about the game stats

For clarity’s sake we’ll have two DCA stats blocks — speculative stats as a young operative, then her earliest stats with the retcons built in.

Black Widow (circa 1955) — Averaged PL 5.2

STR STA AGL DEX FGT INT AWE PRE
00 01 03 03 05 02 02 02

Powers

Kudrin enhancements ● 3 points ● Descriptor: Biochemical enhancements
Diehard, Enhanced Stamina 2, Enhanced Fortitude 3, Regeneration 2 – all with Limitation 2 (only while unconscious, asleep or otherwise unable to notice the Effects)

Combat Advantages

Close attack 2, Defensive Roll 1, Grabbing Finesse, Improved Aim, Instant Up, Ranged attack 2.

Other Advantages

Attractive, Benefit 1 (Slowed ageing), Equipment 3, Fascinate (Deception), Language (Russian), Well-Informed.

Skills

Acrobatics 3 (+6), Athletics 4 (+4), Deception 8 (+10), Expertise (Espionage) 10 (+12), Expertise (Classical dancer) 10 (+12), Expertise (Military) 8 (+10), Insight 4 (+6), Perception 5 (+7), Persuasion 2 (+4), Ranged combat (Firearms) 3 (+8), Stealth 5 (+8), Technology 6 (Limited 1 to Operating, Demolitions, Security), Treatment 4 (+6) (Limited 2 to Revive, Stabilise), Vehicles 5 (+8).

Equipment

Varies by mission. Presumably often had a Light Pistol such as a Pistolet Makarova.

Offense

Initiative +3
Unarmed +7, Close, Damage 0
Firearms +8, Ranged, Damage varies by type

Defense

Dodge 7 Fortitude 4
Parry 7 Toughness 2/1*
Will 5

* Without Defensive Roll

Complications

  • Politics The Widow operates in a tense and volatile political context.
  • Identity The Widow’s memory has been extensively tampered with, and there exists backdoors and failsafes to control her which she’s not aware of.
  • Disability The Widow cannot bear a child.
  • Secret Natalya often operates undercover.

Power levels

  • Trade-off areas Attack & Effect PL 4, Dodge/Toughness PL 5, Parry/Toughness PL 5, Fort & Will PL 5.
  • Point total 100. Abilities 36, Defences 12, Skills 33, Powers 3, Devices 0, Advantages 16. Equiv. PL 7.


Black Widow (circa 1964) — Averaged PL 4.4

STR STA AGL DEX FGT INT AWE PRE
00 01 01 03 02 02 02 02

Powers

Kudrin enhancements ● 3 points ● Descriptor: Biochemical enhancements
Diehard, Enhanced Stamina 2, Enhanced Fortitude 3, Regeneration 2 – all with Limitation 2 (only while unconscious, asleep or otherwise unable to notice the Effects)

Combat Advantages

Close attack 1, Defensive Roll 1, Ranged attack 2.

Other Advantages

Attractive, Benefit 1 (Slowed ageing), Equipment 2, Fascinate (Deception), Language (Russian), Well-Informed.

Skills

Athletics 2 (+2), Close combat (Unarmed) 2 (+5), Deception 8 (+10), Expertise (Espionage) 8 (+10), Expertise (Classical dancer) 10 (+12), Insight 5 (+7), Perception 5 (+7), Persuasion 4 (+6), Ranged combat (Firearms) 2 (+7), Stealth 2 (+3), Vehicles 5 (+8).

Equipment

Varies by mission. Presumably often had a Light Pistol such as a Pistolet Makarova.

Offense

Initiative +1
Unarmed +5, Close, Damage 0
Firearms +7, Ranged, Damage varies by type

Defense

Dodge 6 Fortitude 4
Parry 5 Toughness 2/1*
Will 5

* Without Defensive Roll

Complications

  • Politics The Widow apparently loses her political backers during this era.
  • IdentityThe Widow’s memory has been extensively tampered with, and there exists backdoors and failsafes to control her which she’s not aware of.
  • Disability The Widow cannot bear a child.
  • Secret Natalya normally operates undercover as a “swallow bird” agent.

Power levels

  • Trade-off areas Attack & Effect PL 3, Dodge/Toughness PL 4, Parry/Toughness PL 4, Fort & Will PL 5.
  • Point total 79. Abilities 26, Defences 12, Skills 27, Powers 3, Devices 0, Advantages 11. Equiv. PL 6.


By Sébastien Andrivet.

Source of Character: Marvel Universe.

Helper(s): Mike Davis, Darci, Hrist, Joshua Dunlow, Woodclaw, Adam Fuqua.

Writeup reindoctrinated on the 17th of May, 2012.

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