Exploring the White Sea intrigues travelers as much today as it did the English sailors in 1553, who happened on the opening from the Arctic Ocean into an ice-free port in a storm. They sailed into the domain of Ivan IV, when he was young, open to trade with England and not yet terrible. The sixteenth century Merchant Adventurers fell short of an idealized transit to the Far East, when they sailed into English maritime history.
Archangel sits on both sides of the Dvina River as it spills into the White Sea. Location put Archangel at the confluence of history in which England began a 300-year trade relationship with Russia from 1553 to 1853. In that period, the success forged by the Merchant Adventurers evolved into the Muscovy Company. The Muscovy Company created the English model for international trade.
Russia was opened to the west, despite its landlocked capital in Moscow, by the direct line to Archangel. Before St. Petersburg was the dream of Peter the Great in 1703, Archangel flourished as the trade capital of the Arctic. Stymied by Peter, once he opened St. Petersburg, overshadowed by technological advancement in transport in the twentieth century, and taking on a sinister patina in the Stalin era as the end of the line for trains to gulag prisons, Archangel is reemerging as a port from which to launch study of the Arctic. Its strategic importance as the ice-free port on the White Sea has never diminished.
The annual cruise itinerary of Oceania Nautica has included July visits to the White Sea since 2012. Cabins book quickly. Even in dismal weather, the voyage never disappoints.
Today Archangel is in the process of evolving from a Soviet demeanor to a lighter and truly international appeal. The iconic, tall, rectangle building with the radio spire on top, formerly the tallest building in the city, is now a backdrop to a pedestrian mall, lined with reconstructed historic homes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, punctuated with bronze sculptures of poets and storytellers, as well as people from mythical tales and real life. A bronze, life size woman is caught in the moment of spinning yarn, while a child plays at her feet.
At the end of the landscaped promenade the street becomes an insight to pre-restoration Archangel. It is a private opportunity waiting to happen and to add shops and cafes, which will draw people into the new focus of the city. Archangel is a work in progress.
The story of Archangel at the arrival of the Merchant Adventurers, soon joined by German and Dutch traders, is recalled in the Merchant Warehouse Museum on the Dvina River. At the port authority offices, down the road, Peter the Great, not Lenin, dominates the podium. Archangel, Russia is reaching into its historic, pre-war, or cold war, roots.
War memorials, such as memorial square, are still present, although less imposing. Small and yet memorable is the tribute to the Murmansk Convoys, dramatically displayed against the retaining wall of the Dvina. A tribute to seals rests along the river wall. People survived on seal meat during the big wars. Along the river, there is a wide and inviting walkway, enjoyed by visitors as much as locals, with babies in push prams.
The old city docks, within easy proximity to downtown, are accessible to small ships. Larger ships dock at the commercial harbor, on an island thirty minutes from the city. The ride into town allows views of what this part of the Russian frontier has provided in centuries old, two story apartment buildings of wood, begging for rehabilitation and restoration. If Archangel can capture enough of its history, restore and promote its assets, curious visitors to this part of the Arctic will increase, weather permitting.
Read all the stories of the North Sea in Cruise through History, Itinerary XII, forthcoming.