Did the Russians ever play Russian roulette?

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Dear Cecil: 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


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Cecil replies:

It tells you something about Russia, or at least Western perceptions thereof, that this isn’t one of those questions you dismiss out of hand. And it’s not just we layfolk 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 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.

Call it a fine point, but to me five bullets is a different proposition from 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.

Single bullet theory

Hi Cecil!

Re your column on Russian roulette: It was my understanding that in one or another of the wars in which the Russians were involved, the soldiers were so ill-equipped for battle that they could rarely fully load their weapons.  They placed bullets in the chambers at random. Therefore, when they fired at an enemy soldier, neither they nor the enemy knew if there would be a shell present.  To do battle with a Russian became known as “Russian roulette.”

— Karen Schott, Baltimore

Cecil replies:

No mention of this scenario appears in the Collier’s article I cited, the first known instance of “Russian roulette” in print. For further illumination I turned to John Bushnell, the Russian history expert at Northwestern:

Never heard that, and it’s very, very dubious on many, many counts. Up to the early 19th century, soldiers firing smoothbore muskets, in all armies, missed almost all the time. By the end of the 19th century, Russian soldiers were adequately equipped with rifles. Only pistols had chambers that might have been loaded at random, and only officers had pistols. Only in the Crimean War, when the British and French were firing muzzle-loaded rifles that had five times the range of the Russians’ smooth-bore muzzle loaders, was there a situation in which Russia’s opponents might have talked about a marked discrepancy in shooting prowess. But the situation doesn’t seem to fit the explanation offered.

Another shot

Dear Cecil:

Just a little data to compound matters regarding the revolver in Surdez’s short story. The standard service sidearm of Russian officers in 1917 would have been the Model 1895 Nagant revolver, produced from 1895 through WWII. It is a seven shot revolver, so the odds in any Russian roulette would have to reflect 6/1 rather than 5/1. Further, the Nagant loads from a loading gate on the right side, whereby one cartridge at a time may be inserted or removed. The cylinder does not swing out, and there is no way to dramatically “snap it back in place” as Surdez writes. Fine points, but they reflect on the accuracy of the storytelling if a first hand account is being claimed. The revolver action that Surdez’ sergeant is describing is that of a double action Smith & Wesson, Colt, or similar revolver. Take it from an ol’ military surplus collector, Russians used Russian weapons.

— Dennis Thompson

Dear Cecil:

A friend of mine who speaks Russian was a sergeant in the U.S. Army in WWII. He was stationed at Vladivostok in NE Russia. He told me Russian officers played “cuckoo” with a Nagant revolver. He said one would stand on a table or maybe a chair in a dark room. Others would hide and yell “cuckoo” hoping not to be hit by gunfire.

— Walter Schivo, Novato, CA

Cecil replies:

Ach, mein goyisher kopf. I should have mentioned the Nagant, which is as reader Thompson describes.  An elaborate procedure is involved in removing the cylinder — not something you’d do merely to load or unload it.   If Surdez’s fictional account was based on fact it seems apparent from the errors in detail that he had no firsthand knowledge of the practice described.  This is the second time I’ve heard about “cuckoo,” though.  It may be an urban legend too, but right now I’m not drawing any definite conclusions.  If Russian officers didn’t play Russian roulette, they may have played something not that far removed.

Dear Cecil:

Just read the column on Russian roulette. Several comments were made about revolvers, including the Russian M1895 7-shot Nagant revolver. All those comments are correct IF the Nagant was the revolver in question. One person even commented that “Russians use Russian weapons.” BUT before the adoption of the Nagant (a BELGIAN design!) the Russians used a 6-shot .44 top break revolver manufactured by Smith & Wesson. If the officer in the story was using the older model gun (and many remained in use even after the Nagant came into use), the ratio would indeed have been 5:1 and since the gun has a hinged barrel/cylinder assembly, it would be possible to dramatically snap the gun shut. Hope this clears things up.

— Howard Major

Cecil replies:

Oh, absolutely. Are we done with this yet?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.