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Russian roulette

Russian roulette (Russian: (Ðóññêàÿ) Ðóëåòêà, (Russkaya) Rulyetka) is the practice of placing a single round in a revolver, spinning the cylinder and closing it into the firearm without looking, aiming the revolver at one's own head in a suicidal fashion, and pulling the trigger. The number of rounds placed in the revolver can vary, though as a rule there will always be at least one empty chamber. As a gambling game, toy guns are often used to simulate the practice. The number of deaths caused by this practice is unknown.

Legends abound regarding the invention of Russian roulette. Most of these, predictably, take place in Russia, or occur among Russian soldiers.

In one legend, 19th century Russian prisoners were forced to play the game while the prison guards bet on the outcome. In another version, desperate and suicidal officers in the Russian army played the game to impress each other.

The earliest known use of the term is from "Russian Roulette", a short story by Georges Surdez in the January 30, 1937, issue of Collier's Magazine. A Russian sergeant in the French Foreign Legion asks the narrator,

Whether Czarist officers actually played Russian roulette is unclear. In a text on the Czarist officer corps, John Bushnell, a Russian history expert at Northwestern University, cited two near-contemporary memoirs by Russian army veterans, The Duel (1905) by Aleksandr Kuprin and From Double Eagle to Red Flag (1921) by Petr Krasnov. Both books tell of officers' suicidal and outrageous behaviour, but Russian roulette is not mentioned in either text. If the game did originate in real life behavior and not fiction it is unlikely that it started with the Russian military. The standard sidearm issued to Russian officers from 1895 to 1930 was the Nagant M1895 revolver. A primitive double-action revolver, the Nagant's cylinder spins clockwise until the hammer is cocked. While the cylinder does not swing out as in modern hand-ejector style double action revolvers, it can be spun around to randomize the result. However, it holds seven cartridges not six, which throws some doubt on the accuracy of the reference in Collier's. It is possible that Russian officers shot six and kept the seventh cartridge live. Because of the deeply seated bullets unique to the Nagant's cartridge, and because the primers are concealed, it would be very difficult to tell from the outside where the live round was and which were spent and would add to the uncertainty of the results.

The only reference to anything like Russian roulette in Russian literature is in a book entitled A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (1840, translated by Vladimir Nabokov in 1958), where a similar act is performed by a Serbian soldier in the story The Fatalist: the dare however is not named as "Russian roulette". Russian officers did play a game called "cuckoo" with a Nagant revolver, in which one officer would stand on a table or a chair in a dark room. Others would hide and yell "cuckoo" and the man with the gun would fire at the sound.

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