During Black Widow‘s opening sequence of Natasha and Yelena’s trafficking to the Red Room as children, Natasha attempts to take the family’s photo album before leaving their house, but Melina insists that she leave it behind – leading fans to theorize why. The photo album reappears around the film’s halfway mark, when Natasha, Yelena, and Alexei arrive at Melina’s homestead in St. Petersburg in hopes of securing her help in finding Dreykov’s Red Room. In a particularly emotional scene in which Natasha learns from Melina that Dreykov ordered the killing of her biological mother, she notices that the album still lies in Melina’s possession.
As the assassin-turned-Avenger’s debut solo film, Black Widow revolves around Natasha’s past unfinished business, as she sets out on the run between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. The super-spy makes up for lost time with her adopted younger sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and surrogate parents Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei Shostakov aka Red Guardian (David Harbour). 21 years after Melina and Alexei relinquished their “daughters” to the subjugation of Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) Black Widow assassin training program at the conclusion of an undercover mission in Ohio, the makeshift family coordinates to eliminate the villainous Dreykov and destroy the Red Room for good.
Inside the flower-adorned photo album lie images of the undercover Russian spies throughout Melina and Alexei’s operation in America from 1992 to 1995. The fan theory (via TikTok) attributes Melina’s primary incentive to safeguard the book to her knowledge that Natasha wouldn’t be able to keep it safe. Having been cycled through the Red Room four times herself, Melina understood how young girls were entirely stripped of their self-autonomy, and thus wanted to preserve the album because she valued the family and it represented the only memory she could save.
Evidenced by her reluctance to send Natasha and Yelena to the Red Room, Melina grew to love her adopted daughters, which explains her desire to keep the family’s photo album, as the theory suggests. As the four family members rush to leave their Ohio home before the authorities arrive, Melina realizes that she may never see the girls again, thus compelling her to keep the photo album. Melina’s deep-rooted affection for Natasha and Yelena, symbolized by her possession of their childhood photo album, ultimately contributes to her most pivotal moment in Black Widow‘s latter half.
When Natasha discovers the photo album sitting on Melina’s bookshelf at the homestead, she asks her adopted mother why she saved it, to which Melina appears conflicted and does not reply. Natasha proceeds to look through pages of staged holiday photos and says, “I knew all the presents under the tree were just empty boxes, but I didn’t care – I wanted to open every single one so just for a second it would feel real.” At this point, both Natasha and Yelena have expressed their longing for authenticity in their makeshift Russian family. Moments earlier, Yelena declared to Melina, “You were my real mother, the closest thing I ever had to one,” closely followed by, “Those agents you chemically subjugated around the globe? That was me.” The photo album represents the same idea for Melina, who clung to a sense of realness in her family that intended to merely serve as a cloak. Facing grownup Natasha and Yelena in Black Widow‘s present-day forces Melina to come to terms with her contribution to Dreykov’s oppression of the Widows, which directly results in her defection.
The photo album’s fate following the events of Black Widow is unclear, but the book likely still resides with Melina. After Natasha’s sacrificial death in Avengers: Endgame, the book’s significance for Melina takes on an even deeper meaning going forward. In a hypothetical Black Widow 2, the photo album’s reappearance would serve a profound sentimental purpose, signifying Natasha’s memory in the world to which she no longer belongs.