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The Straight Dope



Did the Russians ever play Russian roulette? Somewhere I acquired the explanation that czarist Russian officers played the game to prove their bravery. Could you get to the bottom of this barrel for me? --Perry Starkey, San Antonio, Texas

It tells you something about Russia, or at least Western perceptions thereof, that this isn't one of those questions we dismiss out of hand. And it's not just we laypeople who think like that. None of the Russian history experts we contacted knew for certain that the Russians played Russian roulette. But they didn't rule it out.

Nowadays Russian roulette is generally understood to mean a particularly grim game of chicken in which you load a revolver with a single bullet, spin the cylinder, put the gun to your head, and pull the trigger. Anybody who goes through with it is either dead or crazy (remember Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter?), so clearly this is the sport of desperate souls.

In the original telling, however, the game was a little different. The earliest known use of the term is from "Russian Roulette," a short story by Georges Surdez in the January 30, 1937, issue of Collier's magazine. A Russian sergeant in the French foreign legion asks the narrator, "'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 Rumania, 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 also being 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."

Call it a fine point, but to me five bullets is a much different proposition than one bullet. The former is basically suicide, with the empty chamber offering fate a little wiggle room. The latter is a game, albeit a sick one. Both versions are played in Surdez's story, but it's no surprise the game variant stuck in the public mind.

Did Russian officers play either version in 1917 or at any other time? Czarist officers were notorious for their violent, dissolute behavior. Bored officers

routinely drank themselves into a stupor, fought duels, gambled, stole, mistreated their men, and shirked their duties. Prime candidates for a little game of chance.

But there's not much evidence they played. In writing about the czarist officer corps, John Bushnell, a Russian history specialist at Northwestern University, cited two books by Russian army veterans, The Duel (1905) by Aleksandr Kuprin and From Double Eagle to Red Flag (1921) by Petr Krasnov. Both tell of drunken officers making spectacles of themselves, neglecting their jobs, etc--Kuprin with revulsion, Krasnov affectionately. But no Russian roulette.

Just for laughs--it's been 62 years--I looked up "Georges Surdez" in an Internet phone directory. No dice. Bushnell vaguely recalled a game called "cuckoo" in which officers turned off the lights, hid behind couches and chairs, and took potshots at one another when someone yelled "cuckoo." He didn't remember where he'd seen this, though. In fact, the only reference to anything like Russian roulette I could find in Russian literature was in the book A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (1840, translated by Vladimir Nabokov in 1958). After an evening of cards, several bored officers debate whether fate is preordained. A gambling-addicted Serbian lieutenant bets that it is. He takes a single-shot pistol off the wall, points it at his head, and pulls the trigger. Click. The lieutenant then points the gun out of harm's way and pulls the trigger again. Blammo! He pockets his winnings while the others stare. Later that evening he's hacked to death by a drunken cossack. A year after publication of the book, Lermontov was slain in a duel by a fellow czarist officer. Maybe these guys didn't play Russian roulette, but you can't fault anyone for thinking they did.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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