Thursday, 21 August 2008

What does 'View from Vokzal' mean?

The title of this blog recalls the great Anglo-Russian cultural links of the past, and connects the place where I live with the country I am fascinated by.

As many of you will know, vokzal (вокзал) is the Russian word for a railway station. It was not always so, however: the word was first used to refer to pleasure palaces where the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian upper classes could walk through delightful gardens, play fairground games and listen to music. They also got drunk and engaged in dangerous liaisons there too.

The Russian aristocracy took the idea for these places from the British and from London, in particular. The most famous example was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just south of the Thames from Pimlico and enormously popular from about 1660 onwards. They finally closed in 1840. If you try saying Vauxhall with a strong Russian accent - Vok-sall - you get quite close to vokzal.

But how do you get from there to railway stations? Well, the first Russian railway, built in 1837, led from the centre of St Petersburg to pleasure gardens in Pavlovsk. The terminus there was much more than just a ticket hall and waiting room, also being used for concerts, dances and polite, Tsarist cavorting: hence, it was known as a vokzal. New stations, even when they were considerably less glamorous than the original, were given the same name. Ironically, Vauxhall in London didn't get its first railway station until a year later than its Russian namesake in 1838.

And where does Vauxhall's name come from? It has nothing whatsoever to do with travel and instead derives from the name of the man who owned the area in the 13th century - Faulke de Breaute, the head of King John's mercenaries. He lived in Faulke's Hall. Use the same strong Russian accent as before and you will see how this can sound like Vauxhall!

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