The first hardy inhabitants settled in the north by the 6th millennium BC, after the retreat of the last ice age. Petroglyphs and mysterious stone labyrinths dotted around the Kola Peninsula, Solovetsky Islands and elsewhere attest to the religious life of the inhabitants from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC.
Russians from Novgorod started to head north on hunting, fishing and trapping expeditions to the area around the White Sea in the 11th century. Eventually some of their seasonal camps developed into permanent settlements, the origin of towns such as Kandalaksha, Umba and Varzuga. These settlers became known as Pomors (Pomory in Russian, meaning Coast-dwellers), and they developed a distinct material culture and a unique and lively dialect of Russian which still survives here and there (just).
The Vologda area came under Moscow's aegis in the early 15th century; the rest of the northwest followed with Ivan III's annexation of Novgorod's territories in 1478. What gave an impulse to the region's development was the arrival of English sailors, in search of a northeast passage to China, at the mouth of the Severnaya Dvina River in 1553. Ivan the Terrible founded Arkhangelsk on the spot in 1584: it was Muscovy's first seaport and the initial key to Russian trade with the west.
Arkhangelsk's light was dimmed by Peter the Great's obsession with crushing the challenge of Sweden, which ruled Finland and had designs on bits of Russia. This led Peter to found the much more important port of St Petersburg in 1702. Another of the northwest's major cities, Petrozavodsk, was founded in 1703 as an armaments factory for Peter's Swedish campaigns.
It was war that gave birth to the northwest's fourth big city, too. Come WWI, with its other ports under threat, Russia needed a new supply port where its Western allies could unload military hardware. Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, on an ice-free inlet from the Barents Sea, was chosen as the site, and a new railway was rapidly built to connect it with St Petersburg and Moscow.
After the October Revolution, the Western allies (who opposed it) occupied Murmansk and Arkhangelsk for two years, at one point advancing south almost to Petrozavodsk. This episode is known in Russia as the Intervention.
The Murmansk railway helped Soviet governments unlock the Kola Peninsula's mineral resources from the late 1920s on, bringing new towns such as Monchegorsk and Kirovsk into existence. Prisoners from the northwest's many Gulag camps helped to build new factories and also the White Sea-Baltic Canal in Karelia in the 1920s and 30s. Many of today's inhabitants are descended from those who worked on these projects.
Stalin invaded Finland in 1939-40, but Finland, having obtained independence from Russia only in 1917, fought the Red Army to a standstill. In 1941 Finland allied with Germany, hoping to regain territory it had lost to the Red Army. Hitler launched attacks along the entire Soviet-Finnish border and the Finns occupied Petrozavodsk. The Germans were held back from Murmansk, which along with Arkhangelsk was a key port where Allied convoys could land supplies for the Soviet Union, but Murmansk was bombed to rubble. The Red Army pushed the enemy back in 1944, establishing by the end of the war its current borders with Finland and Norway.
The northwest, especially the Kola Peninsula with its many military installations, was hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet command economy in the 1990s, and suffered a big population decline. But the benefits of Russia's transition are at last being felt here and the major cities have a palp- ably progressive air about them.