Or: Next year, the Caribbean.

Before the founding of St. Petersburg, this small city, teetering on the Arctic edge less than ten miles from the White Sea in northern Russia's Dvina province, was known as Russia's 'window on Europe.'

Founded officially as Novo-Kholmogoryin in 1584, the town existed long before that; its trade history with the Scandinavian nations extends back to the 12th Century. Renamed Archangelsk, or Arkhangel'sk, if you prefer (English Archangel, in either case) in 1613, the otherwise unassuming city has played a suprisingly large role Western history, beginning with its "discovery" by the English in the 16th Century and continuing to World War I.

16th Century: Like Columbus, Only Colder

The opening of Archangelsk to the English was the result of an unhappy accident. The great voyages of discovery financed by the monarchies of Europe set out in all directions, not just East and West. The British had, in addition to its interests in the Americas, kept its mind open to possibilities of trade routes in the North, and in 1553 sent an expedition to see what it could see in less vacation-ready climes.

Three ships, led by Sir Hugh Willoughby, set out on May 11th, and two of them made it as far Spitzbergen, Norway before bad weather forced them into the waters of the Russian Lapland. Both crews, one of which included Sir Hugh, froze to death on the ice.

The third, however--the Bonaventure, commanded by Richard Chancellor, and having luckily been separated from the others--found its way to the White Sea and took shelter in a bay on the mouth of the Dvina River. The town to which the half-frozen sailors dragged themselves was Archangelsk.

The czar at the time, Ivan Basilowitz, aka Ivan IV, aka Ivan the Terrible, refused to live up to his name by inviting the wayward Brits to the Russian court, treating them to a good meal, and granting the English free trade in all his dominions.

The resulting trade, now being run directly through Archangelsk, proved highly beneficial to both nations, as shipping to Russia had previous been the province of the Hanseatic League. Ships would stop in Revel or Narva, in present-day Estonia, before heading off to the Russian cities of Novgorod or Plescof. But as is the goal in all business, both sides wanted to eliminate the middle men. Ivan IV would do so militarily just five years later.

17th Century: Everyone Wants to Get in on the Act

While the English enjoyed the arrangement largely unimpeded for nearly fifty years, the 17th Century was a time of much famed maritime competition between the English and their friends the Dutch, who knew only too well that the inhabitants of Archangelsk were like those of any port city, and would do business with anyone bringing them product and a good price. By the 1640s, Dutch traffic began to clog what was supposed to be an exclusively English route, and the English were geting very busy breeding a Civil War.

The rumor went round for a long time that the banishment of the English from Archangelsk in 1648 resulted from czar Alexis Michaelovitch's increasing disdain for that country's rebellious population and his friendship with Charles I. If so, the czar would be in for another nasty shock within a year.

In truth, the English got their walking papers because the Dutch simply outbid them, offering an excise of fifteen percent on its import/export business for total freedom in the Russian provinces. A hefty amount of money, to be sure--and indicative of how much more was at stake. The Civil War and rough handling of a fellow monarch made for a handy and far less mercenary excuse to cash in.

Fortunately, money was still money, and it wasn't too long before the czar let Oliver Cromwell station a new man in Archangeslk and invited the English to trade again--with neither favor nor privilege.

18th Century: Change of Venue

The founding of St. Petersburg in 1703 opened a new Window on the West, this one situated much more accessibly on the Baltic Sea. It didn't dash the profitability of Archangelsk, but it made a sizable dent. Designed as a European city by for a Westward-looking Czar, the far northern trade routes couldn't match it for efficiency, and the majority of international commerce moved throught the new port.

Tsarina Elizabeth, in her less than memorable reign, sandwiched as she was between an impressive Peter and Catherine, restored England to its full rights in Archangelsk in 1752, when its timber trade was still well worth consideration, and communications with Siberia and the rest of the world still open.

Things were quiet, thereafter, for a respectable stretch of time, the population growing slowly as the economy heated up elsewhere.

20th Century: A Revolution, a World War, and Plenty of Frozen Fish to Go Around

The turbulent 20th put Archangelsk back on the political map with some of the least talked about military exercises in American educational history.

The Russian Revolution came at a bad time as far as the Allied effort in World War I was concerned. 1917-1918 were a couple of tough years all around, and the new Communist government under Lenin pulling Russia out of the war left a bad taste in the mouths of the English, French, and especially Americans, who knew what they were looking at with a powerful Russia spewing anti-capitalistic ideals and relieving the Boche of an entire front.

With these concerns in mind, a combined British, French, Canadian and American expedition to Vladivostok and Archangelsk was planned, the goal of which was to aid the White Russians in combating the Red Army by guarding the military supplies kept in those cities. 3 divisions of American soldiers were resupplied with Mosin-Nagant rifles in lieu of the well-known Enfields, as the former were compatible with Russian ammunition. They received a cursory training and some cold-weather gear, then disembarked for Northern Russia on August 27, 1918.

By this time, of course, the war was very nearly over, and there were no supplies of value left in Archangelsk. So what precisely those boys--called Polar Bears--were up to in the arctic circle remains an interesting point of political/historical discussion. As far as we're told, it was because anti-bolshevik forces promised to put Russia back into the fray if they won. As far as we can guess, it was to fight an unpublicized battle against the new Communist regime; a war within the war.

The Polar Bears kept fighting until September 1919, well after the end of the war. The 339th Division alone--all boys from Detroit, Michigan--suffered the following: 82 died in action, 24 more from wounds, and 68 from disease. 32 disappeared, and the Red Army took nine prisoners.

Archangelsk was unceremoniously captured by the expeditionary force early in the fighting, and just as unceremoniously abandoned when everyone came to terms with reality.


The Nazis had plans for Archangelsk during World War II, but the winter stopped them before they got that far, and the city is again enjoying a high degree of relative quiet.

Over the last thirty years, the population has swelled from 40,000 to nearly half a million, not bad for a city iced-in for a significant portion of the year.


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