Russian roulette (Russian: русская рулетка, russkaya ruletka) is a lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head, and pulls the trigger, in the hope that the round does not reach the barrel of the gun and therefore fire. Russian refers to the supposed country of origin, and roulette to the element of risk-taking and the spinning of the revolver's cylinder, which is reminiscent of a spinning roulette wheel.
According to Andrew Clarke, the first trace of Russian roulette can be found in the story "The Fatalist" of 1840, part of the collection A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian poet and writer. In the story the protagonist of the novel, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, says there is no predestination and proposes a bet emptying about twenty gold pieces onto the table. A lieutenant of the dragons of the tsar of Serbian origin, Vulič, with passion for gambling, accepts the challenge and randomly takes one of the various-caliber pistols from its nail, cocks it and pours powder on the shelf. Nobody knows if the pistol is loaded or not. Vulič asks: "Gentlemen! Who will pay 20 gold pieces for me?", putting the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead. Then he asks Gregory to throw a card in the air and when this card touches the ground, he shoots. Fortunately, nothing happens, because the blow fails, but when Vulič cocks the pistol again, and aims it at the service cap hanging over the window, a shot rings out and smoke fills the room.
This game would spread among Russian garrison officials, becoming a foolish courage challenge. It became a way to alleviate the boredom of these long hours in distant garrisons; it also became an undertaking, frieze, or something that, in the eyes of its players, surpassed the duel. Because it was the age of duels, Lermontov would die a year after writing the story in a duel with a former partner: he was slapped, challenged him to a duel, and died by gunshot.
The term Russian roulette was possibly first used in a 1937 short story of the same name by Georges Surdez:
'Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' When I said I had not, he told me all about it. When he was with the Russian army in Rumania [sic], around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the Allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a café, at a gathering of friends, 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.
- In a 1946 U.S. legal case, Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (1946), a Pennsylvania teenager's conviction for murder in the second degree as a result of shooting a friend was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In this case, the teenagers involved played a modified version of Russian roulette, called Russian poker, in which they took turns aiming and pulling the trigger of the revolver at each other, rather than at their own heads. The court ruled that "When an individual commits an act of gross recklessness without regard to the probability that death to another is likely to result, that individual exhibits the state of mind required to uphold a conviction of manslaughter even if the individual did not intend for death to ensue."
- In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X recalls an incident during his burglary career when he once played Russian roulette, pulling the trigger three times in a row to convince his partners in crime that he was not afraid to die. In the epilogue to the book, Alex Haley states that Malcolm X revealed to him that he palmed the round. The incident is portrayed in the 1992 film adaptation of the autobiography.
- On December 25, 1954, American blues musician Johnny Ace killed himself in Texas, after a gun he pointed at his own head discharged. A report in The Washington Post attributed this to Russian roulette.
- Graham Greene relates in his first autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), that he played Russian roulette, alone, a few times as a teenager.
- On July 24, 1973, Dallas Police Officer Darrell L. Cain fatally shot Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old Mexican-American child while interrogating him and his brother about a burglary. Cain shot Rodriguez while conducting Russian roulette on the brothers in an attempt to force a confession from them.
- On September 10, 1976, Finnish magician Aimo Leikas killed himself in front of a crowd while performing his Russian roulette act. He had been performing the act for about a year, selecting six bullets from a box of assorted live and dummy ammunition.
- John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was known to have played Russian roulette, alone, on two occasions. Hinckley also took a picture of himself in 1980, pointing a gun at his head.
- On October 12, 1984, while waiting for filming to resume on Cover Up (1985), actor Jon-Erik Hexum played Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum revolver loaded with a blank. The blast fractured his skull and caused massive cerebral hemorrhaging when bone fragments were forced through his brain. He was rushed to Beverly Hills Medical Center, where he was pronounced brain dead.
- PBS claims that William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, had attempted suicide by playing a solo game of Russian roulette.
- On October 5, 2003, psychological illusionist Derren Brown appeared to take part in a game of Russian roulette live on UK television. Two days later, a statement by the police said they had been informed of the arrangements in advance, and were satisfied that "There was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk."
- The BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, on 13 September 2010, featured the actor Alan Cumming investigating his grandfather Tommy Darling, whom he discovered had died playing Russian roulette while serving as a police officer in British Malaya. The family had previously believed he had died accidentally while cleaning his gun.
- On June 11, 2016, MMA fighter Ivan "JP" Cole apparently killed himself by playing Russian roulette.
In popular cultureEdit
- In the 1973 comic-album Le Grand Duc, Lucky Luke guides a Russian grand duke through the Old West. The grand duke conducts negotiations through Russian roulette, said to be popular at the Czar's court.
- In the 1982 Judge Dredd story The Apocalypse War, War Marshal Kazan, the main antagonist, forces his second-in-command Judge Izaaks to play one round of Russian roulette every day of his life until he finally ends up shooting himself. Kazan himself is killed before this can happen.
- A variant of Russian roulette called “hillbilly roulette,” which involves loading a gun with three chambers, and aiming as close as possible to another person’s head without hitting them, and requires the person firing the gun to drink a shot of 80 proof or stronger liquor (usually whiskey or moonshine) before each round of play, is referenced extensively in the 2016 novel Nobody's Property.
- In Daniel Martin Eckhart's published original screenplay Not Minding the Hurt, Russian Roulette plays a central role as it is played for the entertainment of an elite crowd that bets on the placement of the bullet.
- In Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider novel Russian Roulette, the titular game plays a pivotal role in the character arc of protagonist Yassen Gregorovich.
- In the 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, two characters play Russian roulette for a woman.
- In the 1965 horror film The Skull, Peter Cushing's character is tortured by being forced to play Russian roulette.
- In the 1975 film Royal Flash, set in the 1840s, the antagonist Rudi von Sternberg claims to have invented the game, calling it "Hungarian Roulette". He plays it with a pepper-box pistol, a type of weapon that was the historical precursor of the modern revolver.
- The 1975 film Sholay portrays a villain, Gabbar Singh, who uses Russian roulette to punish three members of his own gang.
- The 1978 film The Deer Hunter features three American soldiers who are captured during the Vietnam War and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors gamble on the results. Their captors demand an especially brutal variation of the game: the game is played until all but one contestant is killed. The game takes place in a bamboo room above where the other prisoners are held, so that the losers' blood drips down on future contestants. Several teen deaths following the movie's release caused police and the media to blame the film's depiction of Russian roulette, saying that it inspired the youths.
- In the 1986 movie Crawlspace, the main character uses Russian roulette to determine his own fate.
- In the 1997 film One Eight Seven, Samuel L. Jackson's character is forced to play Russian roulette.
- In the 1997 film Bad Day on the Block, Charlie Sheen's character forces family members to play Russian roulette.
- In the 2006 Bollywood film Dhoom 2, Aryan (Hrithik Roshan) forces a hysterical Sunehri (Aishwarya Rai) to play Russian roulette.
- In the 2007 Bollywood film Dhamaal, Deshbandhu Roy (Riteish Deshmukh) snatches Inspector Kabir Nayak's (Sanjay Dutt) revolver and plays Russian roulette with him, unaware of the fact that it is loaded.
- In the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Robert Downey Jr.'s character uses Russian roulette to intimidate a criminal by pointing a six-shot revolver containing one round at the criminal's head. He pulls the trigger and the gun fires, killing the criminal instantly.
- In the 2013 Australian film These Final Hours, Russian roulette is played in "The party to end all parties".
- In the film ABCs of Death 2, three characters are seen playing Russian roulette in the scene "R is for Roulette." They play a variant where they do not re-spin the chamber between pulls so one of them would certainly get the bullet and avoid being captured by the Nazi regime. The "winner" (who is certain to get the bullet) decides to shoot his lover in an act of mercy before they are all eventually captured.
- In the 2017 Chinese film Kill Me Please, Wang Xun's character seeks suicide by visiting Thailand and playing Russian roulette in a bar.
- In the 2017 Tamil film Bairavaa, Bairavaa (Vijay) intimidates Kottai Veeran (Daniel Balaji) using his revolver and plays Russian roulette to himself, which he strategically evades.
- In the 1951 Friz Freleng-directed Bugs Bunny cartoon Ballot Box Bunny, in the often censored ending, after both Bugs and Yosemite Sam lose a mayoral election to a literal "dark horse candidate", Bugs invites Sam to play Russian roulette. Sam pulls the trigger, but does not get shot. Just as Bugs is about to put the gun to his head, the cartoon irises out and the audience hears a shot. The iris opens back up to reveal Bugs missed and ended up hitting Sam, who survives.
- MAD Magazine published in 1963 the Sergio Aragonés cartoon Russian "Russian Roulette", in which six men play the game without spinning the chamber of a revolver between turns. When the last (and doomed) man gets the gun, he fires it back through the heads of the other five.
- In the 1980 Hong Kong TV series The Bund, the protagonist Hui confronts his rival, Fung, over a game of Russian roulette, and survives.
- A 1990 episode from Tales from the Crypt, "Cutting Cards", portrayed two rival gamblers playing a game of Russian roulette, with one accusing the other of using "dud" ammunition.
- During the third season of television series 24, Jack Bauer is forced to play Russian roulette during a prison riot.
- On the TV series The Wild Wild West the two main characters, Gordon and West, were tormented by their Russian captor with a game of Russian roulette. This was done at West's request to stall their execution and buy time to free their bonds to escape in the episode The Night of the Tartar.
- In Hinterland season 2 episode 2 (2014), Bell and DCI Mathias each play one round of Russian roulette.
- In Peaky Blinders series 3 episode 4, Duchess Tatiana Petrovna plays Russian roulette with Tommy's gun, to his horror and dismay, and she unsuccessfully urges him to play, too, advising him it is exhilarating. When the gun does not fire, she says it is God's will.
- In the episode "Venezuela" of Banged Up Abroad, James Miles and Paul Loseby voice their utter shock and horror when they discover the prisoners playing Russian roulette. After having his appeal refused and facing a 10-year sentence, as well as due to the harshness of the prison life and complete lack of self-esteem, James eventually participates in the game.
- In the 2014 first season of the Italian TV series Gomorrah, Camorra member Ciro is forced to participate in a game of Russian roulette in order to seal a business deal between the Camorra and a Russian Mafia crew.
- In 2002, Game Show Network debuted a television game show called Russian Roulette. It was hosted by Mark L. Walberg.
- In Money Heist, Tokyo plays Russian roulette with Berlin.
- In the 1973 Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm challenges Fredrik Egerman to a game of Russian roulette to settle a romantic feud. A nervous Fredrik accidentally shoots himself in the ear, and Carl-Magnus declares himself the winner.
- On the 1986 Megadeth album Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, the song "My Last Words" is about playing Russian roulette, and how it draws in the player even though the possibility of death is very real.
- In 2001, in their debut album Ompa til du dør, Norwegian band Kaizers Orchestra included numerable references to Russian roulette, most notably in the songs "Rulett", "Fra sjåfør til passasjer", and "Resistansen".
- Pop Singer Rihanna released a song titled "Russian Roulette" in October 27, 2009. It is a Pop and RnB ballad and exhibits morbid and dark elements in its composition. Music critics have opined that this song is a reflection of her abusive relationship with former boyfriend Chris Brown.
- In September 2016, the South Korean girl group Red Velvet released their third extended play with the title "Russian Roulette", with a lead single of the same name. Its lyrics compare the process of winning someone's heart with a game of Russian roulette and its music video features the girls sabotaging each other with fatal (off-screen) consequences, such as dropping pianos on the other members and pushing each other into empty swimming pools, drawing parallels to the lethality of Russian roulette.
- In the 2005 video game Killer7, Benjamin Keane invites Garcian Smith to play a game of Russian Roulette - giving him two choices: If Garcian wins, Keane will reveal an infallible method to successfully hit on women; if Garcian loses, he'll have to assassinate the U.S. President.
- In the 2010 video game Call of Duty: Black Ops, featured characters are forced to play Russian roulette, heavily inspired by the scene from The Deer Hunter.
- In the 2012 video game Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, one of the challenges presented to students in the game's fourth chapter is a one-player Russian roulette game, which is played by Gundham Tanaka and Nagito Komaeda on two separate occasions. The latter plays an inverted version with five bullets and one empty chamber, surviving thanks to his "ultimate lucky student" talent. Tanaka plays with one bullet and also survives.
- In June 2017, the video game Super Russian Roulette was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game involves pointing the Zapper light-gun accessory at the players own heads, facing off against a computer-generated cowboy and up to three human players.
- In the 2018 video game Detroit: Become Human, depressed alcoholic Lieutenant Hank Anderson is revealed to often participate in Russian roulette while drunk. In the chapter "Russian Roulette", Connor ends up saving and sobering up Hank when he passed out playing Russian roulette. One ending depicts the character killing himself while in a miserable state.
There is a drinking game based on Russian roulette. The game involves six shot glasses filled by a non-player. Five are filled with water, the sixth with vodka. Among some groups, low quality vodka is preferred as it makes the glass representing the filled chamber less desirable. The glasses are arranged in a circle, and players take turns choosing a glass to take a shot from at random.
There is also a game called "Beer Hunter" (titled after the Russian roulette scenes in the film The Deer Hunter). In this game, six cans of beer are placed between the participants. One can is vigorously shaken, and the cans are scrambled. The participants take turns opening the cans of beer right under their noses; the person who opens the shaken can (and sprays beer up their nose) is deemed the loser.
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