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The Shedding of Yelena Belova’s Identity, in Marvel Comics 1998-2006.

Josh Mitchell

By Josh MitchellPublished 4 years ago 11 min read

The time is 10:18 in the morning. In the home of Natasha Romanov, a woman sits up in bed. On the cabinet sits a framed photo of a young couple in love: ‘I still can’t believe you said “yes”, my Natalia!’ the handwriting reads, ‘Love always, Alexi’. As she opens the window, a calm morning breeze sighs into the room. The woman catches her reflection in the mirror. The face of Natasha Romanov stares back at her. But this woman is not Natasha Romanov.


Marvel’s Yelena Belova first appeared in the 1998 comic ‘Inhumans’ #5, after being tasked with delivering a device to the mysterious Mister Bixby during the siege of Attilan. Sent by Colonel Yuri Stalyenko of the Black Widow Ops Program, Belova briefly introduced herself as ‘The Black Widow’, before exiting the narrative of ‘The Inhumans’ altogether.

As a result of Belova’s brief appearance, we are provided with little information as to who she is, other than the title she provides. At this point in her life, it is fair to assume that this title is the crux of her identity. Furthermore, the audience understands that from a storytelling perspective her narrative purpose is direct. In these three pages, the object of the scene is not Belova, but the device she is delivering. Belova is employed to drive the narrative forwards as a result of external influences. ‘I am ordered here,’ she says. Even her dialogue seems influenced by her employer, in the form of borrowed words, as if Belova were reciting a mission statement received some time earlier:

‘Hidden within this statue is a subsonic emitter, given to us by a contact within the city. It will attack the integrity of Attilan’s inner defensive mechanism – the surrounding negative space barrier’ (ibid).

In the same way that Russia uses Belova to deliver the deus ex machina of a new war, the writer uses her to advance the narrative.

The notion of identity is therefore central to understanding the development of Belova’s character throughout her appearances. As outlined by Deschamps and Devos (in: Worchel, 1998, p1-12), identity can be separated into the social and personal. The authors state that social identity is constructed by ‘membership of a group’ (p.2), whereas personal identity is characterised by ‘more specific, […] idiosyncratic’ (ibid) qualities. These key facets of identity have been viewed as both polarised (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and homogeneous affects (Mead 1934). The self, as suggested by Mead (1934) is mutable: identity is in constant change as a result of societal change. In relation to Belova, her social identity is represented by Russia, and The Black Widow Ops Program, whereas her personal identity rests within her trust, loyalty, and how she chooses to define herself. In short, the story of Yelena Belova is one of an incessantly unbalanced scale between her social and personal identities.


To understand the character of Yelena Belova, it is crucial to also understand Natasha Romanov. Romanov serves to Belova, narratively, as a parallel track of experiences, but just a little bit further ahead.

Notably, both characters trained in The Red Room espionage facility, but Romanov served first. As a result of this, by the time Belova has been introduced to us Romanov already holds the mantle of The Black Widow. Due to her deep cover, Romanov’s memories were later fabricated to convince her she had been learning ballet in the Bolshoi Theatre (‘Black Widow’ Vol3, #4, 2005). The Red Room also implemented several biochemical enhancements, which kept the twenty-eight orphaned girls’ young for decades, as well as keeping them superhumanly healthy and resilient (ibd). The Red Room’s benefactor, Department X have also emerged in the Marvel Universe as the masterminds behind The Winter Soldier (‘Captain America’ Vol5 #45, 2009), and Wolverine (‘Wolverine’ Vol3, #40, 2006).

After Romanov’s husband, Alexei Shostakov, passed away, Natasha defected to the United States and became a spy, where she was soon recruited by SHIELD. It is after these events that a replacement for the USSR’s Black Widow was sought after. At age fifteen, Yelena Belova began training in a modernised reincarnation of The Red Room Academy.

In Black Widow’s 1999 comic series, Yelena emerges again. This time, as Romanov’s shadow.

After appearing in a room adjacent to Romanov’s home apartment, Belova trails her to an Arabian base. It is important to note that it is heavily implied that Romanov is consistently aware of Belova, but rather than acting on this chooses instead to ignore her. A possible reason for this is Romanov has underestimated Belova’s ability and deemed her as not being a threat.

Despite claiming her results from The Red Room examinations greatly exceed that as Romanov’s (ibid, #1; ‘Pale Little Spider’ #1, 2002), Belova is swiftly saved by her after she is captured. This is the first indication that the two are not equals, no matter how much Belova wishes they were. From this point on, Romanov begins to refer to her as ‘rooskaya’ (Russian (n): ‘little one’).

For the duration of the story, the two mirror a narrative of uncertain identity: Belova is representative of a certitude towards which Romanov desperately seeks, while Romanov is representative of a title, embodying an ideal Black Widow, which Belova desperately strives to surpass (read: ‘Pale Little Spider’, 2002).

Similarly, to her first appearance in ‘The Inhumans’ (#5, 1998), Belova is manipulated by the writer into assuming the position of a passive narrative agent. This time, the story focuses on the self-reflection in Romanov of which Belova’s appearance ignites.

As we progress through the narrative, we learn that Romanov had been tasked, by two separate governments, to assassinate the scientist behind the newly emerged and exceptionally lethal ‘Deathless Frenzy’ virus and deliver it home. Later, we learn that the Russian government could not trust that Romanov would deliver the serum to them, instead suspecting a betrayal to the United States, so sent Belova to ensure collection. ‘[T]hough I may not know which country you would deliver the serum to, I have no doubts as to where this Black Widow’s allegiance lies.’ Belova explains (‘Black Widow’ #1, 1999). We later learn that the United States had little trust in her, either (ibid, #3).

As Romanov begins to realise how Belova’s certainty in her social identity has overwritten her personal identity, Romanov’s own begins to unravel. During a phone call with Matt Murdoch, she asks, ‘What do you know about me? Who do you think I am?’

In a change of heart, Romanov disobeys her orders from both governments and takes Didier Ines, the scientist behind the virus, to a safe house, and employs him to manufacture a vaccine, instead.

At the close of the second volume, Belova confronts Romanov in a phone box and tries to kill her. Moments later, Romanov is shot in the back, and Belova holds the motionless embodiment of The Black Widow in her arms.

Believing herself to be the natural successor to the title, Belova instinctively answers a call from Murdoch, who is monitoring the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil. ‘This is Black Widow.’ She says, ‘Proceed with your message, Daredevil’ (ibid, #3).

Later, we learn that Romanov relied on this eventuality in her plan all along. Romanov completes her mission, having faked her death with rubber bullets and a few old friends, and Belova escapes using the same technique Romanov had demonstrated earlier in the narrative.

However, before leaving, Belova is left with a warning from her rival. ‘Listen, rooskaya […] you do not want to “be” me.’ She says, ‘You learn to be lost all the time, so as to never be able to direct anyone to your employers, or your heart, or your vulnerabilities. And for what, rooskaya, for what? To play pawn to any one of a dozen governments that will shoot you in the back just for becoming the dispassionate creature they require? You push on and push on, never knowing what will make you suddenly aware of the cold’ (ibid). Romanov identifies Belova as a naïve spy, as someone who has a lot to learn and is at the beginning their development, but most importantly, Romanov identifies Belova as a younger version of herself.


After failing in becoming Romanov’s successor, and surviving psychologically through her tutelage (‘Black Widow’ Vol2, 2001), Belova decides to forfeit who she was designed to be for who she has realised she is.

During the first volume of ‘Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her’ (2005), Belova appears for the first time as her own person. Her personal identity has been defined by herself rather than any number of governing bodies which had wished to manipulate her for their own gain. Belova has, on her own, accrued modelling contracts worth millions, a half a million dollar a month lingerie empire, a couple of soft-core porn channels in Moscow, and houses in six different countries where she helps keep female sex workers safe and distributes medicines to those affected by AIDS (ibid, #1).

Belova helps Romanov get back on her feet (#1), and during the final volumes (#5, #6) aids in Romanov’s rescue in Panama. During these final pages, I would like to emphasize two notions of importance. Firstly, the development of Belova’s narrative agency. Secondly, her redistribution of sexuality.

Prior to her appearance within this comic, Belova had a passive narrative agency. By this, I mean her purpose within the story has only been to drive external events or other characters forwards. In ‘Inhumans’ (#5, 1998) her purpose was to continue the story by delivering the trojan horse. In ‘Black Widow’ 1999, her purpose was to feature Romanov’s internal struggle of uncertainty. However, in ‘Black Widow ‘2005, it is Romanov who comes to Belova for help (#1), and who is the reason she survives the cruel torture of Ferris and Kestrel (#5, #6). Where some time earlier Belova was the one who was captured, and Romanov was the one who came to the rescue (‘Black Widow’, 1999), now the positions of active and passive agency have been switched.

Furthermore, during Belova’s time serving under the Black Widow Ops Program, she became consciously aware of a gendered world (‘Pale Little Spider’, 2002): Her Black Widow uniform is likened to bondage gear (ibid, #2), the sexualisation of which deeply unsettles her, and the relationship she had with her former mentor is privately fetishized. It is seemingly by design that this sexualisation is present, as Romanov consistently uses this to her advantage. Alongside strong implications that Belova is asexual, it is suggested that she never made this connection. However, after realising that she could use this projected sexualisation to her own advantage, Belova later retired to Cuba to start her own life (‘Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her’ #5, 2005). She says, ‘in this part of the world there’s not much that breasts and blonde hair won’t get you if you plan intelligently.’ When asked how she managed to find Murdoch in issue five, she answers plainly, ‘Cuba’s not a big place, Matt, and I throw a lot of cocktail parties. The perimeter commander’s a good friend.’


Despite Belova’s completed character arc, her final chronological appearance is not in 2005. After suffering severe burns during her appearance in ‘New Avengers’ (2004, #5, #6) Belova is approached in hospital by HYDRA, and synthesised into a Super-Adaptoid (‘New Avengers Annual ‘2006, #1): a creature which can copy the superhuman abilities of anything it touches. However, during these three issues, Yelena Belova suffers a narrative destabilisation of her entire arc, which comes across as nothing more than unnecessary.

When we first encounter Belova she was painted as a character riddled with obsession over a title, an ideal she spent most of her life working towards, only to realise that she would never reach the standards she had set for herself. As Lika, her friend and doctor, accurately summarises, ‘You are the only one who thinks you failed’ (‘Pale Little Spider’ #1, 2002). After retiring to Cuba, Belova created a selfless life, and only returned to the battlefield when it was absolutely necessary (‘Black Widow’ #5, 2005). The writer’s decision to inject Belova into the narrative of The New Avengers, only to have her viciously burned alive in the next issue and accept HYDRA’s offer for revenge, not only lacks narrative cohesion, considering the cline of character progression previous instalments had constructed, but revises an established story.

For this reason, the Yelena Belova who appears here would be more effective as a new character altogether, as her actions directly ignore Romanov’s warning of becoming ‘pawn to any one of a dozen governments’ (Black Widow #3, 1999).


Bendis, B.M. ‘New Avengers’, #5. Marvel, 2004.

Bendis, B.M. ‘New Avengers Annual’, #1. Marvel, 2006.

Brubaker, E. ‘Captain America’, Vol5, #45. Marvel, 2009.

Deschamps, J., Devos, T. 1998. ‘Regarding the Relationship Between Social Identity and Personal Identity’: Social Identity: International Perspectives., p1-12.

Grayson, D. ‘Black Widow’, #1-3. Marvel, 1999.

Grayson, D. ‘Black Widow’, Vol2, #1-3. ‘Breakdown’. Marvel, 2001.

Jenkins, P. ‘Inhumans’, #5. Marvel, 1998.

Mead, G.H. 1934. ‘Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist.’

Morgan, R.K. ‘Black Widow’, Vol3, #4. Marvel, 2005.

Morgan, R.K. ‘Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her’, Vol3. #1-6. Marvel, 2005.

Rucka, G. ‘Black Widow: Pale Little Spider’, #1-3. Marvel, 2002.

Tajfel, H., Turner, J. 1979. ‘An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict’: Organisational identity: A reader., 56-65.

Way, D. ‘Wolverine’, Vol3, #40. Marvel, 2006.


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Josh Mitchell

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