After the last ice age, hardy northerners created petroglyphs and mysterious stone labyrinths attesting to a now-mysterious religious life that existed as early as the 3rd millennium BC.

From the 11th century AD, Russians from Novgorod made hunting, fishing and trapping expeditions to the White Sea area. Some of their seasonal camps eventually became permanent settlements – the origin of towns such as Kandalaksha, Umba and Varzuga. These Pomors (coast dwellers) developed a distinct material culture and their own lively dialect of Russian.

Moscow grabbed the Vologda area in the early 15th century and annexed the rest of the northwest from Novgorod in 1478. Shortly after, the unexpected arrival of English sailors seeking a northeast passage to China gave Ivan the Terrible the idea of founding a port and commencing trade with the west. That port, Arkhangelsk, bloomed, as did many towns on its river supply route. All this changed, however, once Peter the Great founded St Petersburg in 1703, offering much easier access to the sea. Formerly forgotten Karelia was suddenly the supply centre for building Peter’s new capital, and Petrozavodsk was founded a year later to produce armaments for his wars with Sweden.

Founding Murmansk

The northwest’s biggest city, Murmansk, was founded during WWI when embattled tsarist Russia was in desperate need of supplies from its Western allies. But no sooner had the Murmansk–Moscow railway been laid than the October Revolution changed circumstances entirely. The Western allies, which opposed the new Bolshevik regime, occupied Murmansk and Arkhangelsk for two years and at one point advanced south almost to Petrozavodsk.

From the 1920s the Murmansk railway helped Soviet governments unlock the Kola Peninsula’s vast mineral resources, bringing new towns such as Monchegorsk and Kirovsk into existence. Gulag prisoners were part of the force that built the region’s new factories and the White Sea–Baltic Canal.

WWII & After

Stalin invaded Finland in 1939–40. Having been independent from Russia only since 1917, Finland allied with Germany to counter-attack along the entire Soviet–Finnish border, eventually occupying Petrozavodsk. Once again, anti-German allies fought desperately to prevent a Russian defeat, sending highly risky supply convoys from Scotland to embattled Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Those ports held out but were both bombed to rubble by the Luftwaffe. In 1944 the Red Army fought back, pushing the Nazis out of Norway and claiming a chunk of southeastern Finland, which remains part of Russia’s Republic of Karelia today. Many ethnic Finns and Karelians (a Finno-Ugric people related to Finns and Estonians) fled to Finland, and today only about 10% of the Republic of Karelia’s 720,000 population is actually Karelian.

In the 1990s the Kola Peninsula’s heavy industries and naval and military installations were especially hard hit by the collapse of the USSR’s command economy, and cities suffered a big population decline. Despite ongoing problems, strong ties with Scandinavia mean the region's big cities have a progressive air that is unusual for provincial Russia.