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The construction of Arkhangelsk was decreed by Ivan the Terrible in 1583, 30 years after the English Edward Bonaventure, captained by Richard Chancellor, had arrived at what was then a remote fishing settlement while searching for the northeast passage to China. Chancellor headed overland to Moscow where Ivan (still in his pre- Terrible period) proved keen to establish trade ties with England.

Arkhangelsk was Muscovy's first seaport and between 1668 and 1684 a large fortified trading centre, the Gostiny Dvor, was constructed on its riverbank. Luxurious European textiles such as satin and velvet arrived here and flax, hemp, wax and timber for ships' masts were exported. In 1693 Peter the Great began shipbuilding operations here, launching the Russian navy's tiny first ship, the Svyatoy Pavel, the following year.

The founding of St Petersburg in 1702 pushed Arkhangelsk out of the limelight but it later became a centre for Arctic exploration and a focus of the huge northern lumber industry.