Russian roulette has been described as a deadly game of chance. It involves a participant placing a single round into a revolver, spinning the cylinder, placing the muzzle of the gun to their head and then pulling the trigger. If the cylinder holds six rounds, the participant will be absolutely fine five times out of six. What about the other occasion? Well, the participant will be not so good.
History of Russian Roulette
The first mention of Russian roulette came in 1937 in a short story by Georges Surdez. ‘’Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?’ … With the Russian army in Romania, around 1917, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, put a single bullet in the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head and pull the trigger.’ Claims have been made that this practice was known of in Russia in the early 19th century.
It wasn’t until 1978 and the release of the film ‘The Deer Hunter’ that Russian roulette became known worldwide. The film was set during the Vietnam War and in one scene three soldiers are captured and endure a particularly brutal version of the game – the game not ending until all but one had died.
Real Life Incidents of Russian Roulette
In December 1954, American Blues musician Johnny Ace killed himself in Texas with a .22 caliber revolver. It was widely reported at the time that this has happened whilst playing Russian roulette, however eye witnesses state that he had been playing with the gun, but not playing the deadly game – bragging that he knew which chamber was loaded before he fired.
In 1976, Aimo Leikas, a Finnish magician killed himself whilst performing his Russian roulette act. His act used a combination of live and dummy ammunition and he claimed he could choose the right one using telepathy – an act he had been performing for a year. Leikas died in front of a horrified live audience at the age of 29.
In October 1984, US actor John-Erik Hexum was filming an episode of ‘Cover Up’. The scene required him to load blanks into a .44 Magnum handgun. During a delay in filming, the actor became restless and began messing around. He unloaded all the blanks apart from one, and proceeded to play a game of Russian roulette. Hexum was unaware that firing a blank at point blank range is akin to creating a small explosion. Sadly, he fired the blank, shattering his skull and causing massive hemorrhaging in his brain. John-Erik Hexum died five days later.
Whilst filming the popular UK series ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ in 2010, it emerged that the grandfather of actor Alan Cumming had died playing Russian roulette whilst serving as a police officer in Malaya. The family had previously thought he had died whilst cleaning his gun.
Malcolm X stated in his autobiography that he had played Russian roulette in his time as a burglar, in order to convince his partners he was willing to die. English Novelist Graham Greene admitted in his autobiography that he had played the game alone as a teenager on two occasions. John Hinckley Jr., the man who had attempted to kill then President Ronald Reagan was known to have played the game alone twice.
Sadly, these are not the only reported cases of fatal games of Russian roulette. After the release of the movie ‘The Deer Hunter’ several teen deaths caused the media and the police to blame the depiction of Russian roulette from the movie. Over the years there have been many other cases of this deadly game being fatal. These include suicides, alcohol fueled games and games of dare which have gone way too far – in some cases accomplices in the game being charged with possession of a weapon, homicide and manslaughter.
Russian Roulette in Popular Culture
In the 2008 song Poker Face by Lady Gaga, there is a line ‘Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun’.
Rihanna released a song names ‘Russian roulette’ in 2008.
In 2010, a version of the game was played in the popular video game ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’.
In 2014 Anthony Horowitz released the book named ‘Russian roulette’, a prequel to the Alex Rider novel.