Winter Guard

Winter Guard

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Recruited by dictator Josef Stalin himself, World War II's Red Guardian was one of the earliest known costumed heroes of Russia, then the USSR, but little else about its early heroes is known. While the USSR launched an orbiting facility in 1942 for advanced research, American forces manipulated the Soviets into destroying it at war's end, costing them technology it would take years to redevelop. In 1948, Trofim Lysenko's bizarre theories dominated the USSR, coloring perception of natural sciences, and the Soviets developed the atomic bomb a year later; these developments may have led Stalin to launch a genocidal campaign against Russia's mutants, killing many in infancy. With scientific research questionable, mystic resources were explored under the supervision of Gregor Smirnoff, although his results remain sketchy.

In the 1950s, Natalia Romanova began her lengthy KGB career as the Black Widow, while the so-called Ivan the Terrible dominated counterespionage unit SMERSH; Soviet espionage in the USA was overseen by an operative known only as the Man. However, many Soviet endeavors were foiled by American soldiers, spies, and adventurers; moreover, the USSR was infiltrated by Eternals and Deviants in their millennia-long feud, and the Communist Bloc witnessed many superhuman forays against the USSR, ranging from mystic attacks to alien incursions. Stalin himself was impersonated by a demon in 1953 and died shortly afterward. His successor, Georgy Malenkov, recruited a new Red Skull as an operative, but this Skull and others, including the electric-powered Electro and the armored Oleg, met defeat from American super heroes. Attempts to form alliances with Atlantean and extraterrestrial renegades failed, and biological automata called Meatspore Stormtroopers proved uncontrollable and were incarcerated at research facility Science City 53. In 1955, Nikita Khrushchev usurped power, and two years later the USSR launched Sputnik I, widely believed to be the first manmade satellite.

By 1961, the USSR, having weathered attacks by the alien-controlled It, The Living Colossus and the dragonlike Grogg, had made remarkable advances, including the manned spacecraft Vostok I; research at Science City 53 was redirected, and vague reports existed of a Soviet unit called the Red Front, enemies of the American First Line. Khrushchev was impersonated by the alien Pretender in 1962 and deposed by Leonid Brezhnev two years later, and an end to Lysenko's dominance that same year presumably contributed to developments later in the decade, including extensive parapsychology studies at numerous facilities such as the Pavlov Institute. The Soviet space program was enhanced by superhuman astronaut Epsilon Red, succeeded in later decades by Doctor Volkh and Mikhail Rasputin. However, such operatives as the flying Katyusha and the deadly Omega Red either defected or proved uncontrollable, and the USSR placed Omega Red and other super-agents, including Cold Warrior and Chernobyl, in suspended animation for future deployment.

It may have been during this period that the mutant genocide program fell under the directorship of East German scientist Wolfgang Heinrich, a.k.a. Doppelganger, who launched horrific experiments upon surviving mutants in an effort to duplicate their powers. The USSR employed such specialized assassins as the Confessor and Deadmaker, while the elite soldiers of the Pravda Patrol represented Soviet interests abroad. Dr. Constantin Racal developed Warborgs, technologically reanimated corpses, as super-soldiers in select circumstances; superhuman Sleeper agents were dispatched to the USA, with the intention of, like Chernobyl and others, being activated if necessary.

Over twenty years ago, Professor Piotr Phobos convinced the Soviet government that Russian mutants could, if trained from childhood, become reliable operatives; the mutant genocide program, known to few since Stalin's death, was curbed or shut down, although a number of far less sinister mutant "Province" camps remained, and Heinrich covertly continued his work. Select mutants were placed under Phobos's care in the Siberian Project, while others remained with their families under covert observation by the Flagwatch program. Phobos's work was supplemented by Professor Anatoly Vonya, eventually mutating the operatives who later rebelled as Peristrike Force. Following an upsurge of mutant births in a nuclear accident's wake, government factions developed giant robots called Strazhi (or "Sentinels") for potential use against mutant threats. The USSR's non-mutant operatives included the armored Iron Maiden, the cyborgs Black Brigade and Geo, the athletic assassin Ghost Maker, the costumed Cossack, and several others. Among the USSR's top scientists were biochemical specialist Doctor Yes and geneticist Emil Kovax, while some its more exotic endeavors were overseen by Colonel Alexi Vazhin, later Head of Mutant Affairs. Many of the USSR's scientific advances were created by the mutated genius called the Gargoyle, allegedly supported by the similarly mutated Ant Queen.

Soviet technology was apparently acquired by outside communist factions and nations; unconfirmed reports of strange phenomena swept the USSR, possibly indicative of escapes from or faulty shutdowns of superhuman programs. As the Soviet governments changed, many of Russia's programs, left from earlier regimes, were occasionally designated "Soviet super-programs" even after the Soviet government itself was no more. The USSR's breakup heralded an upsurge in Russian organized crime, led by the former KGB mastermind called the General and employing such operatives as the armored Vindiktor and the shape shifting Skull-Jacket.

In recent years, the Fantastic Four's debut heralded widespread superhuman activity, and several alleged Soviet and/or communist operatives, their true allegiances unclear, were active early in this period. Some, including the Chameleon (Dmitri Smerdyakov), the Red Ghost, and the Purple Man, embarked upon prolonged rivalries with American heroes; others, such as Mongu (Boris Monguski), the Rabble Rouser, and the Wrecker (Karl Kort), soon vanished from the scene. A few, like Comrade X and the Beasts of Berlin, subsequently joined the communist unit called the People's Defense Force. Russia's most prominent super-operatives were the Titanium Man and agents using the armor of the Crimson Dynamo; the Red Guardian identity was reassigned to Alexi Shostakov, husband of the now legendary Black Widow, who had defected to the USA. Following Shostakov's seeming death in battle with the Avengers, his codename was coopted by the vigilante later called Starlight, who also defected to the USA; an android duplicate of the Shostakov Red Guardian was used years later as an operative of hardline communists. However, not all Russian operatives were hostile toward American forces, as seen by Yuri Brevlov's leadership of a S.H.I.E.L.D. faction. Other Russian superhumans included the mutated Metazoid, the costumed assassins collectively called Agent Syn, and the rebellious Elements Of Doom.

Russia's first known modern super-team was the Soviet Super-Troopers, armored soldiers outfitted by the Gargoyle's mutant son Gremlin and led by Devastator. However, two of Phobos' now-adult students, Vanguard and Darkstar, were also recruited as government operatives, occasionally working with a Crimson Dynamo. Following a clash on the Moon with the alien Rigellians, the three were joined by Ursa Major, another Phobos alumnus, as the Soviet Super-Soldiers, named after the decades-old programs from which the team was extrapolated. An early assignment of the Soldiers exposed Phobos's efforts to expand the radioactive Forbidden Zone, created by the renegade Presence, across Russia; the incident left the Siberian Project a shambles, with such trainees as the Snow Leopard forced to fend for themselves. After months of activity, the three mutant Super-Soldiers grew dissatisfied with government supervision and, following the exposure of government infiltration by Dire Wraiths, they became free operatives, dismissing the Dynamo and allying with the Gremlin, now using the Titanium Man's armor.

Following the Gremlin's apparent death in battle with Iron Man, his teammates fled Russia, planning defection to the USA. However, the Russian government had created a new team, the Supreme Soviets, led by Josef Petkus, the latest Red Guardian; sent to retrieve the three mutants, the Soviets captured them but were eventually defeated. Nevertheless, the threesome was later imprisoned, but freed by underground mutants called the Exiles, some survivors of Wolfgang Heinrich's work. General Valentin Shatalov dispatched the cyborg Firefox, who decimated the Exiles' ranks before being defeated. Vanguard, Darkstar, and Ursa Major joined the remaining Exiles, later renamed Siberforce, which continued outlaw activities against anti-mutant prejudice. Shatalov formed a new super-team under communist guidelines, Remont-4, but this endeavor was brief; a similarly motivated team, the Bogatyri, was organized by ex-astronaut Doctor Volkh in hope of rebuilding the USSR but was also short-lived.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Soviets, reorganized as the People's Protectorate, joined forces with the USA's Avengers, Canada's Alpha Flight, and other heroes against the radioactive Combine, the extraterrestrial Starblasters, and others. When the Russian government apparently pardoned Siberforce, the team was merged with the Protectorate as the Winter Guard ("Zimniy Storozh" in Russian); the Red Guardian, Vostok, and Fantasma were recruited from the Protectorate, while Vanguard, Darkstar, Ursa Major, and Sibercat emigrated from Siberforce, with the mutated Powersurge completing the roster, although Darkstar later joined the X-Corporation and was apparently slain. While remnants of earlier USSR programs occasionally resurface, the in-fighting between super-teams is apparently over, and Winter Guard has enjoyed success against the Mandarin, the Presence, ULTIMATUM, and other threats, their role as Russia's protectors supplemented by covert operatives such as the Warborgs and the new Black Widow (Yelena Belova), as well as by freelance vigilantes like the newest Crimson Dynamo (Gennady Gavrilov), gun-wielding Dragunov, and the long-time adventurer Night Raven.

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