Russian Roulette: Its History and Origin

You must have heard of the phrase ‘Russian Roulette’. It keeps popping in our pop culture from time to time, in the movies we watch, the books we read, and the songs we listen to, like the 2009 solo from Rihanna called ‘Russian Roulette’.

It has become so common that you might even have heard it being used in everyday conversation in the form of a metaphor for actions that are simply not worth the risk.

But ask anybody around, and nobody knows the history behind its origin and common usage, not that you need to know the history of a phrase before using it; knowing the meaning will suffice.

It’s very different from the Roulette you play at the casinos, or the Live Roulette you play online. So here’s everything you need to know about Russian Roulette.


What is Russian Roulette?

Russian Roulette is a deadly game of chance where one or more participants try to stay alive after pulling the trigger of a partially loaded gun aimed at themselves.

The participant takes an empty revolver, places a single cartridge in it, spins the cylinder and closes it while looking away. They then take the shots in turns with other participants.

The history behind the game

There is no concrete evidence when the game of Russian Roulette may have been conceived. It is speculated to be somewhere between the 1850s — when there was a rapid increase in the number of revolver handguns in Russia — and the 1920s — when Russian adventurers first mentioned it in their Civil War accounts.

We do know for sure, though, the origin of the term Russian Roulette. It’s first public appearance was in a short story written by a Swiss author Georges Surdez. The story was published in Collier’s Illustrated Weekly, a prominent magazine at the time.

While the story itself is good, an interesting thing that immediately catches one’s attention is when a character in the story urges another to play a variant of the existing Russian Roulette that featured only one bullet in the cylinder instead of five.

Why is this peculiar? Because at the time, people played the version with five bullets and the one-bullet version hadn’t been heard of.

To this day, it is unknown why Surdez changed the rules of the game, but it’s understandable why he may have done it. Decreasing the chances of getting shot in the face from 5 out of 6 to 1 out of 6 lasts the game longer and makes it more exciting. Even the craziest of knuckleheads won’t want to risk losing their lives at the pull of a trigger that has a 5 in 6 chance of killing them.

Russian Roulette in Pop Culture

Georges Surdez’s story became fairly popular and was eventually reprinted in the Fiction Parade & Golden Book Magazine digest in May of the same year. In less than a year, a boy names Thomas H. Markley Jr shot himself in the head on his 21st birthday.

Soon, Russian Roulette became a craze and claimed over 2,000 victims over many years.

Some of the famous people that met their demise because of a game of Russian Roulette are John Marshall Alexander Jr, a rhythm and blues musician, Aimo Leikas, a Finnish magician, John Erik Hexum, an American TV actor, and Alan Cumming, a British actor.

The craze caught attention and slowly became part of the American pop culture, from where it spread to the rest of the world.

While many Hollywood movies have referenced it, the most notorious depiction of Russian Roulette was in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter. Because of its extreme depiction of the game and its consequences, the movie was met with mixed reactions and sparked major controversies.

In closing, the game of Russian Roulette is a deadly one. No reward is worth playing it nor any reason worth justifying. So, use the phrase in your conversation and writing as much as you want, but never risk your life for the meaningless thrill of beating death.


Name: Russian Roulette: Its History and Origin
Author: Stephanie Regan
Published Date: 21/06/2019
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