Legends abound regarding the invention of Russian roulette. Most of these, predictably, take place in Russia, or occur among Russian soldiers.
In one legend, 19th century Russian prisoners were forced to play the game while the prison guards bet on the outcome. In another version, desperate and suicidal officers in the Russian army played the game to impress each other.
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.
Whether Czarist officers actually played Russian roulette is unclear. In a text on the Czarist officer corps, John Bushnell, a Russian history expert at Northwestern University, cited two near-contemporary memoirs by Russian army veterans, The Duel (1905) by Aleksandr Kuprin and From Double Eagle to Red Flag (1921) by Petr Krasnov. Both books tell of officers’ suicidal and outrageous behaviour, but Russian roulette is not mentioned in either text. If the game did originate in real life behavior and not fiction it is unlikely that it started with the Russian military. The standard sidearm issued to Russian officers from 1895 to 1930 was the Nagant M1895 revolver. A primitive double-action revolver, the Nagant’s cylinder spins freely until the hammer is cocked. While the cylinder does not swing out as in modern hand-ejector style double action revolvers, it can be spun around to randomize the result. However, it holds seven cartridges not six, which throws some doubt on the accuracy of the reference in Collier’s.
The only reference to anything like Russian roulette in Russian literature is in a book entitled A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (1840, translated by Vladimir Nabokov in 1958), where a similar act is performed by a Serbian soldier: the dare however is not named as “Russian roulette”. Russian officers did play a game called “cuckoo” with a Nagant revolver, in which one officer would stand on a table or a chair in a dark room. Others would hide and yell “cuckoo” and the man with the gun would fire at the sound.
In the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, the game is also depicted as being played in Vietnam. According to one website claiming to offer insight into the practice of Russian roulette, Valerie Douglas, whose father’s cousin and father were in the Vietnam War states that Russian roulette occurred both for gambling and murder.  Several teen deaths following the movie’s release caused police and the media to blame the film’s depiction of Russian roulette, saying that it inspired the youths. There is also an interesting Russian roulette scene in the Japanese film Sonatine, directed by Takeshi Kitano.
A semi-automatic pistol, unlike a revolver, will automatically load and fire a round if it has any rounds, Or may contain a round in the chamber even when the Magazine is removed. There has been at least one Darwin Award resulting from an attempt to play Russian roulette with such a pistol. This variation is sometimes referred to as “Polish roulette,”—a bigoted play on the stereotype of Polish people being of low intelligence—though its actual origins are disputed.
“Russian Poker” is a variation of Russian Roulette – the difference being that in Russian Poker, one’s opponent places the gun up to the other person and pulls the trigger.
Video: Derren Brown – Russian Roulette