What comes to your mind when your hear Russian Roulette? Rihanna? Crazy Russians killing themselves? I think of sounds. Hearts pounding heavily in the room, tuk tuk. Heavy breathing. Click. Clack. Snap. Trigger pulled. A shot is heard. A shot ringing out in the silent room. Deafening. Paralyzing. Heart wrenching. Voila, c’est tout…
Bang bang, he shot me down/ Bang bang, I hit the ground/ Bang bang, that awful sound/ Bang bang, my baby shot me down. (You shot me down by Nancy Sinatra)
Russian roulette first appeared in Tsarist Russia and became widespread in America just before the Second World War. What did people see in it? What attracted the masses? What charm exists in gambling with one’s life? Apparently it is the most intriguing of all gambling games. Adrenaline and mystery put together. Life and death. Victory and perdition. Chance. Temptation. Fright. Bravery on par with irrationality.
In 1937 Georges Arthur Surdez published a piece of fiction titled Russian Roulette in the American magazine Collier’s Weekly. A witty tale of adventure, gambling, and death, the story introduced the game that would kill more than a thousand Americans. Immediately the idea rooted itself in the American psyche. Due to its tempting and dangerous nature, his story had slid off the printed pages and into the real life. Had he expected it? No one knows.
There are two legends on how this game originated in pre-Revolutionary Russia. The first, states that 19th century Russian convicts were forced to play the game, while prisoner guards made bets on either the death or life of the prisoner. According to the second version, Russian army officers played the game out of their own free wish, in order to surprise the others with their gallant courage. The second legend is of course much more beautiful. It is also said that at the times of war with the Ottomans, surviving was already a low probability. When death was a part of their life, officers came up with an alternative to war, more fun perhaps. The roulette gambled with their lives no less than war did. What difference did it make, after all? The heck with it, thought they, as I suppose. Heroes, they were… lost souls.
At the beginnings of the 20th century, the roulette started gaining popularity in the Empire and often became a means of choice for suicide. Many people tried their luck with the revolver and most of these stories became unknown, hidden, buried in the melancholic and mysterious air of the past. They aren’t famous today like the death of Malcolm X. However, there still are some traces in history of the participants in this fatal game… some legends, others facts. Vladimir Mayakovski, Henry Graham Greene, William Bradford Shockley, among many other simple and unfortunate souls ended their lives with this hazardous game.
Brought to life by officers of the Russian Empire, the Russian roulette will always remain in history as one of the most daring and mind-disturbing games of all time… when the bet – is life itself. When life is left to chance, chance alone…