Russian Roulette Origin, History and Perception in Popular Culture

Russian Roulette is a deadly game of chance that few people nowadays haven’t heard of. As a concept, it appears in the songs that we listen to, the movies that we watch, the books that we read and even in our everyday lives, as a metaphor for actions that are not worth the risk. Most people, however, don’t really know much about the Russian Roulette origin story. Thus, we decided to change that and dug deep into the history of the Russian Roulette. If you’d like to know what we found out, then stay put!
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A Six Shooter Revolver – The Original Russian Roulette Gun Share on Pinterest

Russian Roulette History – When and How it Came About?

The origin of Russian Roulette, as you could tell by the name, is believed to have come from Tsarist Russia. The exact moment when it was conceived is unclear, however, it has to be in the time period between the 1850s when the number of revolver handguns in Russia rapidly increased and the 1920s, when adventurers in Russia first mentioned it in their accounts of the civil war.

There is one thing, that we know for sure, however, and that is the origin of the term Russian Roulette. The game made its first public appearance in a short 1,600-word story, written by a Swiss author by the name of Georges Surdez. In 1937 it was published in the Collier’s Illustrated Weekly, one of the most prominent magazines at the time. Most of Surdez’s works were inspired by the numerous romantic tales of the French Foreign Legion that he read as a child. Since we are in the mood for roulettes, we can refer you to a less deadly and more enjoyable version – the online roulette games available on the sites of our best real cash online casino operators! You can also play online roulette for free using some of these top no deposit bonus casino promotions.

‘Russian Roulette’ made no exception and told the story of a young German recruit, who’s been trying to cover up the suicide of his Russian comrade. In a letter to his superior, he recounts being told a story about the game of Russian roulette. According to his deceased comrade, tsarist army officers used to practice this deadly form of gambling in 1917, during the last days of their involvement in the First World War.

According to the narrative, the Russians would randomly pull out their revolvers, remove a single cartridge, spin the cylinder, point the gun at their head and pull the trigger. Sergeant Burkowski, the victim, whose suicide the young legionary has been trying to cover up, was a keen and compulsive gambler. After telling the story, he immediately demonstrated the game and invited the German to play a variant which features a single bullet in the cylinder instead of five. If you love roulette, but putting your life at risk is not in your to-do list for today, you can check which are the best online casinos in the UK which can grant you not only perfect roulette games but also other gambling products! Speaking of other gambling games, top live blackjack UK casinos online offer a great selection of tables. Or why not claim one of the best slots bonus offers or first deposit bonus slots offers and enjoy playing slots online.

The Cylinder of a Revolver With a Single Loaded Cartridge

There is a number of unanswered questions about ‘Russian Roulette’ amongst which why Surdez thought that playing with one bullet would be more invigorating than using five. Thanks to the very few letters and notes that the author had left behind, up to this very day it remains unclear, why he altered the rules of the game.

It is a common assumption that the ‘lower risk’ increases the average playtime, thus making the game as exciting as playing at a real dealer casino with some of the best live casino promotions for UK players. However, the reason might have been much simpler, as having a 1 out of 6 chance to survive would have proven a deal breaker even for the craziest knuckleheads out there. After all, this latter version is what remained and at the end of the last century turned into a component of the American pop culture as well.

The Death Toll

As the story was fairly successful, it was reprinted in the Fiction Parade & Golden Book Magazine digest in May of the same year. Less than a year later, a young boy named Thomas H. Markley junior shot himself in the head on his 21st birthday. He was the first of over 2000 victims of the Russian Roulette craze. Here are some of the more famous people, who lost their lives while playing this deadly game:

  • John Marshall Alexander Jr, also known as Johny Ace, was a popular rhythm and blues musician from the USA. On Christmas Day 1954, at the end of a year-long tour, he found himself performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas. During one of the breaks, he shot himself dead, while playing with a 32-cal. revolver. And while some eye-witnesses declared that drinking and firearm mishandling lead to his death, the official police reports stated that the cause of the incident was a game of Russian Roulette.
  • Aimo Leikas, a famous performer of magic from Finland, became especially popular thanks to his grand act – the Russian Roulette. It was a simple, though extremely dangerous trick. He had a fully loaded six-shooter with five blanks and one live round and claimed that he can select any of the safe ammunition, only using the power of his mind. The show grew in popularity, as the Finn did the stunt again and again for over a year. It seemed as death was never going to catch up with him, until in 1976 while performing on stage, his number finally came up.
  • The cast of the American TV Series Cover Up became the witnesses of yet another tragic accident. In between filming the production, John-Erik Hexum started playing with one of the prop revolvers, that was loaded with blank cartridges only. He pointed the gun to his head, pretending to play Russian Roulette and squeezed the trigger. Unfortunately, the gun was none other, but the infamous 44. Magnum – one of the most powerful hand cannons in the world. Even though no projectile came out of the barrel, the shockwave from the 44. was so strong, that it fractured his skull and sent pieces of bone the size of a quarter flying into his brain. He was rushed to the nearby hospital, only to be pronounced brain dead.
  • On September 13, 2010, while filming an episode of the popular BBC program “Who Do You Think You Are?” the famous British actor Alan Cumming found out a daunting story about his grandfather. As the investigating journalist dug deeper and deeper into the history of Cumming’s relatives, they came across some information, that filled in a long-missing gap in the actor’s family history. His mother’s father, who used to serve in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in Malaya, was believed to have died whilst cleaning his gun. However, it turns out that he passed away while participating in a deadly game of Russian Roulette.
  • The most recent case, that we have managed to find, took place on January 24, 2019, in St. Luis, Missouri. Two police officers, one of which was on duty, while the other was off, played a variant of Russian Roulette called Russian Poker. It is a very similar game, the only difference being that participants point the gun at their opponent’s head instead of their own. In the second round, the gun discharged, killing Officer Katlyn Alix. As a result, officer Nathaniel Hendren was accused of manslaughter and armed criminal action. If found guilty, he was to face up to 10 years in prison. In late March, he was put on a house arrest and a $100,00 bond.

Russian Roulette as Part of the Pop Culture

Almost like playing high stakes roulette online, the Russian Roulette is a treat for high rollers and it is often used as the main subject in numerous popular movies. The origin of Russian Roulette in pop culture can be traced back to 1937 when when it made its first public appearance. Since then, the game has become an important part of popular culture in America and the rest of the world. Understandably, different game variations can be seen at many of the top online casinos in the world. Needless to say, you will find many variants featured at the best online roulette sites in India. Additionally, it has been portrayed in a large number of contemporary art-works, from cartoons, such as cartoons, paintings, song lyrics and books, but it made its largest impact on the big screen in Hollywood. Here are some honourable mentions:

  • Bugs Bunny – 1951
  • Smiles of a Summer Night – 1955
  • A Little Night Music – 1973
  • Sholay – 1975
  • The Bund – 1980
  • Crawispace – 1986
  • Tales from the Crypt – 1990
  • One Eight Seven – 1997
  • 24 – 2003
  • Don’t Fear the Reaper – 2012

The most notorious Russian Roulette scene of them all, however, is the one portrayed in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter. Spoiler alert! It tells the story of three best friends – Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken), from a small town in Pennsylvania, who in 1968 enlist in the US Army and are stationed to Vietnam. After a short while, they become prisoners of war and are forced to play a game of three bullet Russian Roulette for the entertainment of their Vietcong guards. After the gun fails to discharge three times, Michael uses this chance to shoot the guards, thus making the escape possible.

It is an incredibly nerve-racking scene, that sees the two characters going through a rollercoaster of emotions, each time they pointed the loaded gun at their heads and squeezed the trigger. And just when viewers thought that the movie would have a relatively happy ending, they find out that Nick, traumatised by his wartime experiences, had stayed in Vietnam. When his best friend Mike goes back to look for him, he finds him in a bar, making a living out of gambling on Russian Roulette. The two characters engage in the deadly game once again, whilst Nick is desperately trying to save his mate. For the viewers’ surprise and horror, the gun goes off, thus killing Christopher Walken’s character.

The movie was met with mixed reactions and sparked huge controversies, as it was believed that the production has taken liberties when depicting Vietcong’s treatment of US POWs during the war. Several officials had argued that there were no battlefield reports to support the theory that prisoners of war were forced to play the deadly game of luck. A famous critic going by the name of Roger Ebert, defended the movie, saying that regardless of whether such events did or didn’t actually occur, the scenes were incredibly successful on a purely artistic ground. Here are his exact words:

It is the organising symbol of the film: Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes an ideological statement about the war superfluous. Roger Ebert

The fact is that more than 40 years later, The Deer Hunter remains one of the best movies about the war in Vietnam, alongside titles like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July. Many experts will even go to such lengths as calling it one of the all-time greats of the art of cinema. If you haven’t watched it, we thoroughly recommend it! And as of the game of Russian Roulette, we have every reason to believe that it is going to remain a part of pop culture in the years to come and a strong and impacting metaphor for taking unnecessary risk with uncertain outcomes.

If you get inspired after you watch it and you decide to give a try to the game (hopefully without the deadly part of it) we recommend you to read our article about roulette strategies and tips and smarten up your game with some exciting new casino bonuses. Then, you can go ahead and visit our page about the top UK online real money roulette iPad apps and pick an operator if you prefer to play on the go. You can do so with the best casino promo codes in the UK or you can do it as usual – just by making a first valid deposit. Meanwhile, if you would like to try something safer, we recommend you the classic casino roulette game. Not sure how to play it? You can find all rules of roulette in our full guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

We have reached the end of our article and unfortunately the time to say goodbye has come. In most of the cases, here we give you our final thoughts as a conclusion of the topic. This time, however, we have a better idea. We gathered the most commonly asked questions around the web about Russian Roulette history, the origin of Russian Roulette, and other queries related to the game. And, of course, we gave them our answers. We hope that you will enjoy them! Thank you for being with us and reading this blog post!

🔫 What is Russian Roulette?Russian roulette is a game where one or more participants aim a partly loaded revolver at their heads and pull the trigger. It is believed that it has emerged from Tsarist Russia, during the 18th and 19th Centuries and It made its first public appearance in a short story by George Surdez.💭 How to play Russian Roulette?We do not encourage or recommend anyone to play this deadly game, after all, it has been responsible for many deaths, but for purely informative reasons, here is how you do it. First, you take an empty revolver and place a single cartridge in it. Then you spin the cylinder and close it, whilst not looking. Finally, you put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. ❓ Why do people play Russian Roulette?That is a question that only those who have participated not died playing Russian Roulette could truly answer. We believe that it is the extremely high risks and the thrill of ‘beating death’ that make people play the game of Russian Roulette. However, unless you find someone who has done it before, you will never really know the answer. 🇷🇺 Where does Russian Roulette come from?The story of Russian Roulette's origin starts, as you would expect, in Russia. The game was reportedly created by Russian soldiers sometime between the 1850s and the 1920s. Accounts of the Russian civil war mentioned the game for the first time.⚰️ Has anyone died in Russian Roulette?Yes, given the very nature of the game, Russian Roulette has caused many deaths. It is estimated that over 2000 people have lost their lives due to the game. We have listed the stories of some of the most famous deaths in Russian Roulette history, why not check it out?📜 What is the origin of the term Russian Roulette?While the game can be traced to 18th and 19th Century Tsarist Russian, the term, "Russian Roulette", came later. The name was first coined by Georges Arthur Surdez. The writer of pulp fiction stories mentioned the game, calling it Russian Roulette, in a 1937 short story. ⚔️ Do people actually play Russian roulette?Russian Roulette is a gambling game with high stakes and it gives you a percentage chance of life and death. Most cases of the game that were documented have been amongst suicidal people or groups of people sharing similar problems in life. So, yes, people do play Russian Roulette.❔ Why is the casino game called Russian roulette?Russian refers to the supposed country in which the game was created, and roulette - to the element of risk-taking and the spinning of the revolver's cylinder, which reminds of a spinning roulette wheel. Playing the game of Russian roulette is literally gambling with your life...

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