Changes in diatom assemblages and spheroidal carbonaceous particle (SCP) profiles during the last 200 years in 210Pb-dated sediment cores from five remote arctic and sub-arctic lakes in the northern Urals were analysed. The study area covers a large territory from arctic tundra in the north to boreal forest on the western slopes of the Ural mountains in the south. pH was reconstructed using a diatom-based model. The degrees of compositional turn-over and rates-of-change were estimated numerically. The 20th century diatom floristic shifts, the rise in diatom accumulation rates and the rates of diatom compositional change in the northern Ural lakes correlate well with June temperature in the region and with the overall circum-arctic temperature increase from the 1970s. The main driving force behind diatom compositional shifts in the study lakes are the changes in the duration of ice-free season, timing of water turn-over and stratification periods and habitat availability. Changes in spheroidal carbonaceous particles show no pronounced effect on diatom assemblages. Pollution is restricted to regional sources originating mainly from the Vorkuta coal industry. Changes in diatom plankton are more pronounced than changes in diatom benthos. There is no clear north–south gradient in degree of compositional changes, with greatest changes occurring in Lake Vankavad situated in northern boreal forest. The degree of the 20th century diatom changes in Lake Vankavad is greater than in most circum-arctic and sub-arctic lakes from northern Europe and Canada.