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Russian Roulette

Of all the diverting entertainments that firearms have to offer, perhaps the most notorious is Russian roulette.  There’s not much to the rules.  All you need is a pistol that holds six bullets.  You put a bullet in one of the chambers, and everyone takes turns holding the gun to their heads until it goes off.  It’s quite a game, and it forces one to ask the question: why on earth would anyone play it?  And who came up with this, anyway?

The first record of this game (and I’m using the term loosely) dates to Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novella The Fatalist.  In it, the game involves a gun with five live rounds and one empty chamber, and it’s played alone.  (The character who “plays” puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and survives.)  In this story, this isn’t called Russian roulette.  It’s not called anything at all, though it does appear in a Russian novella.

The term Russian roulette was coined almost a century later, in 1937, by Swiss-born writer Georges Surdez, in a short story titled Russian Roulette.  The narrator in his story described it like this:
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.

For whatever reason, as the concept of Russian roulette got to be generally known, the more popular version came to involve just one live round and five empty chambers.  The game never really caught on in Russia, but it did enjoy a certain popularity in other countries.  Perhaps the place where it captured the most attention is the United States, where there are plenty of guns to begin with.  A famous 1946 case involves a pair of teenagers from Pennsylvania who modified the game so that they’d take turns pointing and shooting the gun at each other instead of at themselves.  One died, and the survivor claimed that he didn’t intend to kill his friend.  He appealed the case all the way to the commonwealth’s Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction.  One legal question that was not settled, and still isn’t settled, is whether deaths resulting from Russian roulette can be considered homicide or conspiracy on the part of the survivor(s).  (In any case, the law does not look favorably on it.)

Russian roulette is still played today.  Occasional news of people who have died while playing still gets reported, so it’s safe to assume there’s a lot that doesn’t get reported.  Solo Russian roulette will lead to suicide sometimes, and survivors occasionally admit that they’d tried it.

Novelist Graham Greene (left) and would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley (right) both admitted to playing Russian roulette by themselves when they were younger.

Russian roulette featured in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, in which captured American soldiers in Vietnam are forced to play the game while their captors gamble on the results.  After the film’s release, a spate of Russian roulette-related deaths followed, which police blamed on people imitating the film. 

Inspired by the film, the Canadian comedy team the McKenzie Brothers popularized a game they dubbed “the beer hunter” in one of their skits.  In this game, one of six cans of beer is shaken up, and the players take turns holding them up to their faces and opening them until someone gets sprayed.  This version is generally held to be  much safer than the original.  Another safer version is called “wasabi roulette”, which patrons of Boston’s Hokojo restaurant can play.  In this game, six pieces of sushi are presented, one of which is filled with a large dollop of wasabi.  Patrons pop the sushi in their mouths and somebody gets a mouthful of the burning hot condiment!  Uncomfortable, but not fatal.

The concept of Russian roulette has made its way into the English language.  It refers to taking significant, yet unnecessary, risks, as in “I drove home drunk last night.  No accidents, but I shouldn’t play Russian roulette like that.”


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