The genetic diversity of anadromous and freshwater Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) populations from north-west Russia and other north European locations was compared using microsatellite variation to evaluate the importance of anadromous migration, population size and population glacial history in determining population genetic diversity and divergence. In anadromous Atlantic salmon populations, the level of genetic diversity was significantly higher and the level of population divergence was significantly lower than among the freshwater Atlantic salmon populations, even after correcting for differences in stock size. The phylogeographic origin of the populations also had a significant effect on the genetic diversity characteristics of populations: anadromous populations from the basins of the Atlantic Ocean, White Sea and Barents Sea possessed higher levels of genetic diversity than anadromous populations from the Baltic Sea basin. Among the freshwater populations, the result was the opposite: the Baltic freshwater populations were more variable. The results of this study imply that differences in the level of long-term gene flow between freshwater populations and anadromous populations have led to different levels of genetic diversity, which was also evidenced by the hierarchical analysis of molecular variance. Furthermore, the results emphasize the importance of taking the life history of a population into consideration when developing conservation strategies: due to the limited possibilities for new genetic diversity to be generated via gene flow, it is expected that freshwater Atlantic salmon populations would be more vulnerable to extinction following a population crash. Hence, high conservation status is warranted in order to ensure the long-term survival of the limited number of European populations with this life-history strategy.