An Introduction to Russian Roulette

RR1You are shown into a large room. You’re nervous. Your heart races, your palms are sweating lightly. Your chair sits facing a long table. Behind the table a panel of faces look at you coldly. One gets up and stands next to you.

We are going to play Russian Roulette,’ he says.

Is he crazy? Do they expect you to risk your life for a job? You look at the panel. They are serious. You look at the speaker. He forms his fingers into the shape of a gun.

This,’ he says, ‘is a six chamber revolver.’

He puts his finger to your temple.

It has one bullet in it.’

He jerks his finger.

Click. No bullet in that chamber. I’m going to pull the trigger again. Before I do that, do you want me to spin the cylinder of the revolver? You have three seconds to answer.

The panel are looking at you intensely, analysing your reaction. Welcome to the favourite situation of high powered job interviewers. Answering complex questions under pressure. Can you give the right answer?

You Got the Job

The right answer is to spin the cylinder.

The imaginary revolver contains one bullet and five empty chambers. You have a one in six chance of being shot. After the trigger is pulled the revolver has one bullet and four empty chambers. That gives a one in five chance of being shot. Spinning the cylinder brings the empty chamber back into play and gives you a slightly higher chance of survival.

Answer that correctly – and jump the hurdles of your school, university, job experience, skills, outside interests, worst aspects of your personality, sex, race, various other prejudices, where you intend to be in five years time – and you’ve got the job.

The puzzle is not too difficult to work out in the cold light of day but when your future relies on a correct response and the sweat is pooling in your lap it is a much tougher proposition.

But in truth the Russian Roulette stratagem is not used much these days. Interview tricks get old very quickly. Word gets around and soon every applicant who can be bothered to Google has a perfect answer. But you might still encounter it somewhere.

If you’re lucky it’s the closest you’ll ever get to pointing a revolver at your own head and pulling the trigger.

American Dreams

Anthony Santiago Cadiz Jr was nineteen-years-old when he blew his head apart with a .357 magnum revolver. His mother, Melissa Vasquez, lost her son just when she thought she had triumphed over criminal elements in their Hispanic RR4neighbourhood of inner city Springfield, Massachusetts, in a tug of war for his soul.

Anthony’s parents separated when he was young. His father spent seventeen of his forty years behind bars and was mostly present in his son’s life during prison visits. As a single parent Melissa worked hard and taught Anthony right and wrong. She was determined not to be dragged down by the crime and poverty of her neighbourhood.

To everyone’s surprise some of this determination rubbed off on her jailbird former partner. When Cadiz snr was released from his last stretch inside he headed for the small town of Manchester, north west of Springfield, hoping to put his past behind him. Against the odds he succeeded and settled down with a new wife, a straight job, and a family of seven.

As Anthony became a teenager Melissa’s regular update calls to Manchester stopped being proud announcements of his sporting triumphs at school – he was a promising basketball player and boxer – and became cries for help. Their son was mixing with the wrong crowd. He had joined a street gang. He had dropped out of school. Melissa suspected drugs, crime.

His father tried to talk with Anthony when his son came to visit each June. But it was hard to reconcile the cheerful young man, who clowned around and back flipped off the porch to amuse his half brother and sisters, with Melissa’s tales of a street hoodlum. Anthony assured his father he was doing fine. His mother was exaggerating.

But Anthony was not doing fine. Despite his denials, he was deeply involved in gang life. And things were getting dangerous.

Having Fun

Anthony was smart enough to know that if he did not get out of Springfield it would be prison or an early death. The decision to abandon friends and home was not easy but at eighteen, with Melissa’s blessing, Anthony left town and moved in with his father’s new family in Manchester.

Happiness reigned for a few months until it became obvious Anthony did not share his father’s idea of a fresh start. Cadiz snr disapproved of his son’s new friends. When he got him a job just before Christmas 2006 Anthony stopped turning up after only a few days. He was having too much fun with his friends to work. On Christmas day his father threw him out of the house.

Anthony moved into an apartment on East High Street with a friend. Excitement at his new, independent life led to a reconciliation. On the evening of 12 February Anthony rang his father to say he had things to discuss and would come round to see him.

He never arrived. Later that evening a police officer rang Cadiz snr to tell him his son was dead. Anthony had been sitting in his apartment with a group of friends. Alcohol was present, said the officer. Those there that night denied rumours of drugs. What was indisputably in the apartment was an unlicensed .357 magnum revolver.

As the group talked and joked Anthony cracked open the revolver’s cylinder, tipped six bullets out of the gun and replaced one. He pushed the cylinder back into the gun, spun it and put the gun to his head. He pulled the trigger.

The hammer fell on an empty chamber. A friend told Anthony to stop messing around and reached for the gun. Laughing, Anthony Santiago Cadiz Jr pulled the trigger again. The gun went off.

A reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader tracked down Anthony’s father to get his reaction for Wednesday’s edition. Cadiz snr was stunned by his son’s death.

The last couple of weeks he was OK,’ he said. ‘He was happy, excited. He had his place and then he called me last night and then he’s dead.’

History Lesson

You have probably not sat around a cheap apartment in Manchester, Massachusetts drinking and talking, and watched a friend shoot himself in the head. You have probably RR2not been up for a high-powered job and had to think on your feet as an interviewer in an expensive suit pretends to point a gun at your head.

But chances are you will know about Russian Roulette. When the interviewer in the expensive suit mentioned it an image will have jumped into your head. In your mind’s eye you will see a man – and it always a man – holding a revolver to his head. One bullet in the cylinder and gambling with his life.

The image will probably be from a movie. It is likely that movie with be The Deer Hunter and the man with the gun to his head is Robert DeNiro, one of the greatest American actors of his generation and certainly the most intense. Few other actors would tease open sores on their face to bring reality to their portrayal of a young glue sniffer in Bloody Mama or put on sixty pounds to bring 1950’s boxing champion Jake LaMotta to life. The Deer Hunter was made in 1978 but the image of DeNiro with a red bandanna wrapped around his head and a revolver in his hand is still iconic.

Or you might only have heard about Russian Roulette because Lady Gaga references it in her 2009 hit Pokerface. Wider tastes in music? You might know that blues crooner Johnny Ace shot himself dead backstage at a 1954 Christmas Day gig. Literary types will remember that Graham Greene, author of Brighton Rock and The Third Man, confessed to playing Russian Roulette as a troubled Oxford student in the mid-1920s. Or that a character in Steven Millhauser’s 1977 novel Portrait Of A Romantic dies playing it.

Interested in politics? Then it might bring to mind the row over Alex Hailey’s work on the posthumously published autobiography of Malcolm X. Hailey helped the Black Power political leader (‘by any means necessary’) pen his life story and encouraged him to talk about his criminal past. Malcolm remembered a World War Two-era story when, known to his mother as Malcolm Little but to police as pimp Detroit Red, he challenged a mutinous member of his gang to a game of Russian Roulette. Malcolm went first and pulled the trigger on himself. His opponent backed down.

The row erupted because Malcolm confided to Hailey he palmed the bullet so it did not go into the gun. He asked him not to put that detail in the book. Hailey followed his instructions but had no qualms putting it in as an afterword when news broke of Malcolm’s assassination. The Black power leader’s most dedicated fans thought it denigrated their hero as a coward, although no-one seemed bothered by his involvement in a suicidal gun game.

Body Count

What you will not know about Russian Roulette is that it has killed over 1,000 people in the last century. The youngest was five-years-old and the eldest seventy-eight. Their killer is an abstraction, an idea found in pulp fiction rags, B-movies, computer games, and high literature.

Investigating Russian roulette is living a real life detective story with hundreds of corpses and thousands of smoking guns. Anthony Cadiz’s death, Malcolm X’s challenge, DeNiro’s big scene are all links in a chain of gunshots, movies, metaphors and literature that stretches back to the First World War

It was carried like a virus out of the Siberian steppes, witnessed by British mercenaries in provincial Russian towns, and reached western Europe in the aftermath of the Revolution as monarchist exiles fled the Bolsheviks. In France it infected the Surrealists and dosed Graham Greene in Oxford. The death toll took a massive leap when Swiss born writer Georges Arthur Surdez wrote a fictional story about the practice for an American magazine. The contagion spread.

In the USA it found the environmental factors to flourish: easy access to firearms, alcohol, drugs, a large teenage population, and a popular culture that glamourised the practice. It stayed in America for forty years and claimed many more victims before  The Deer Hunter acted as needle to inject the poison back into Europe and across the world.

Now English magicians play it live on television and Turkish teenagers blow their brains out at school. Australian gangster Mark ‘Chopper’ Read claimed to have played it for money in a Footscray pool hall. If true, it was the only time Russian Roulette was every a genuine gambling game.

If you are reading this then you’re smart enough not to put a gun with one bullet to your head and pull the trigger. Anthony’s impulsive game of self-murder will not resonate with you. Make sure it stays that way.

Welcome to the world of drunken teenagers, suicidal Polish officers, Samuel Colt’s legacy and the kind of people who care so little about life they put a partly loaded gun to their head and pull the trigger. This is the history of Russian Roulette.

If you want to show some love for this blog then feel free to buy my books in paperback, hardback, or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com]

and

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

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