The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud – does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this minor suburban railway station on the London and South Western Railway and the grand Imperial terminii of Tsarist Russia?
The most beguiling story is that Vauxhall Station was the location chosen to show off British technological prowess to a Russian delegation. Just a short trip down river from the Houses of Parliament, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the workings of a railway network with a newly built station. According to this explanation, the Russiansmisinterpreted the place name as a descriptor, and became the generic term for all Russian railway stations. From this root, a number of fabulous embellishments were added. From Tsar Nicholas I being personally responsible for the mistake on his trip to London in 1844 to Russian readers of Bradshaw’s timetable mistaking the prominent name Vauxhall as being the correct term describing the terminus of the L&SWR (in the days before the L&SWR had pushed through to Waterloo Station).
Unfortunately, whilst this makes the best story, it is almost certainly untrue (not least because Russian Railways predate the establishment of Vauxhall Station by one year). But this does not mean there is no connection between Russian railways and the southern London suburb. For centuries, Vauxhall was synonomous with entertainment. Several acres of gardens, tree-lined walkways and pavillions made up the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. With lanterns, fireworks, music, theatre, hot air balloons and even a 1,000 man re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo, the Pleasure Gardens provided the capital with unrivalled escapism from the mid 17th century.
It was so famous that the name ‘Vauxhall’ was used by similar pleasure grounds around the world. It had entered the Russian language as Vokzal, and pleasure grounds within the estate of the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg soon bore this name. The first railway in Russia served Imperial interests, running from Saint Petersburg via Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar’s Village) to the Pavlovsk Palace. Its terminus near the Pavlovsk Palace’s pleasure grounds soon adopted the name Vokzal, which then went on to provide the generic term for teminii in Russian.
There are other interesting etymological explanations. Some have suggested that it derives from the German Volkssaal (people’s hall), or the Russian vokalny zal (vocal hall). The latter allegedly deriving from the tradition of great Russian singers being honoured by performances in major railway stations. Neither are particularly convincing, but add more colour and confusion to this mystery.