What is Russian roulette?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

The term “Russian roulette,” according to the American Dictionary, can be defined in two ways. The first definition is a stunt in which one spins the cylinder of a revolver loaded with only one bullet, aims the muzzle at one’s head, and pulls the trigger. The second defines “Russian roulette” as an act of reckless bravado.

There is no evidence that Russians practiced this game of chance. It is rumored 19th century Russian soldiers made their prisoners play the game. As the prisoner spun the revolver the soldiers placed bets on the outcome. Another rumor is Russian soldiers played to combat boredom and depression.

The first mention of Russian roulette can be found in George Surdez’s short story appropriately titled “Russian Roulette.” The story, written in 1937, was featured in the January 30th issue of Collier’s magazine. A Russian sergeant questions the narrator of the story,

“ Feldheim… 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 Romania, 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 cafe, 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. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not."

In American culture the term is often associated with the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter.” The film tells the story of three friends who enlist to fight in the Vietnam War. A memorable scene has prisoners of war, Christopher Walken, Robert DeNiro, and John Savage being forced by Viet Cong soldiers to play several rounds of Russian roulette. Walken and DeNiro escape their prison but Walken’s character is never truly free. Haunted by the brutality of war, his character disappears into a seedy foreign underworld. In the end, he meets his fate playing a game of Russian roulette. Only this time he played by choice. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

In modern times, the term "Russian roulette" can be generically used to describe risky behavior most likely ending with negative results.

This submission was not accepted into the wiseGEEK Writing Contest because it does not meet the minimum length requirement.

submitted by Mary Miller