Russian Roulette – A Brief But Bloody History
Take a handgun. Load a bullet into one of the chambers. Spin the barrel.
These three steps are all you need to take in order to play Russian Roulette, for many a suicidal activity to be avoid at all costs but for some the ultimate form of gambling.
The term ‘Russian Roulette’ seems to have its origins in a short story by the Swiss writer Georges Surdez although, as this extract reveals, the rules he laid out were truly suicidal:
“Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette? With the Russian army in Romania, around 1917… some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place.”
Whether the Russian military really did play their homebrand variety of roulette in Romania isn’t known. However, since author Mikhail Lermentov was writing stories about the practice almost a century before Surdez gave it a name, it’s safe to say that this most unsavoury of pastimes originates from East of the Urals.
As a country with a seemingly insatiable appetite for firearms, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that many of the most infamous Russian Roulette-related incidents have occurred in America. In the 1946 court case Pennsylvania v. Malone, legal eagles contemplated whether a teen could be convicted of manslaughter for having shot his friend playing a modified version of the ‘game’ known as Russian Poker. Meanwhile, when black radical Malcolm X discussed the practice in his autobiography, it served to enhance his reputation for danger and his willingness to take 'any means necessary'.
Not that the man born Malcolm Little is the only public figure to have put a revolver to their temple and prayed. The writer Graham Greene spiced up his memoir A Sort Of Life with stories of how he 'experimented' with Russian Roulette as a teenager, while future would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr (below) waited until his twenties before he spun the chamber. Both lived to tell their tales – most unfortunately in the case of Hinckley – but old skool R&B performer Johnny Ace was less lucky, his death on 25th December 1954 making for a very unhappy Christmas for his family and friends.
Aimo Leikas was another high-profile casualty, the Finnish magician inadvertently reaching his end after an act revolving around Russian Roulette went wrong. In seeking to perform a similar trick in 2003, metrosexual warlock Derren Brown sought to cross the boundaries of suspense but instead only succeeded in crashing through the barriers of taste. Still, as it is impossible to deny its drama, so the most dangerous game has become something of pop culture staple, lending its name to tracks by 10 Years, Accept and, of course, Rhianna, and serving to heighten tension in any number of films and TV shows.
24 (top image), Hinterland, Peaky Blinders – just three of the dramas with pivotal scenes revolving around a gun and single bullet. To talk about Russian Roulette and the big and small screens is to be immediately drawn to The Deer Hunter, for some the greatest of all the movies about America and the Vietnam War.
An Oscar-winning epic directed by Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate), The Deer Hunter sees best friends Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken captured by the Viet Cong and then forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of the enemy. Since there's no evidence of American POWs being subjected to such mistreatment, some critics have dismissed the film's most renowned sequence as, at best, distasteful and, at worst, outright racist. But rather like the rest of this monumental movie, the Russian Roulette scenes – the game follows the men back to the US – are more a commentary on the vagaries of life and the cruelty of chance rather than an indictment of the war or the protocols followed by those who fought it.
By no means easy viewing, we include the scene below for anything but your entertainment:
A sequence so widely acclaimed it later received that ultimate form of big-screen flattery, a direct send-up – see the college-based black comedy The Curve – The Deer Hunter should perhaps be criticised for preserving the image of Russian Roulette as the ultimate game of risk. If one is to appreciate its true unflinching horror, you must head instead to a place that usually has little truck with such unsavoury activities: primetime BBC1.
Yes, it was in that cosiest of locations where, towards the end of an episode of hit genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?, the actor Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, X2) discovered that the grandfather he’d long assumed had been killed accidentally had instead perished while playing Russian Roulette. The look on Cumming’s face when he learns the truth will never leave you. As for the questions Cumming Snr’s death raises – Why would he take such a risk? What must have been his fame of mind? – they are impossible to answer. All we can say with some certainty is that the person capable of contemplating a game of Russian Roulette have left the gambling arena and entered a place that’s far darker than even the most extreme forms of gaming addiction.