How did “Molotov cocktails” get their name?
Molotov cocktails – improvised, portable incendiary bombs – are emblematic of civil unrest and revolution. Cheap, light and easy to conceal, they are probably the deadliest weapon that can be crafted quickly from readily available ingredients. and so “Molotovs” have been wielded by irregular combatants for nearly 100 years, from their first recorded use in the Spanish Civil War to recent conflicts, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Molotov cocktails are named after Russian politician Vyacheslav Molotov, who served as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union during World War II. According to American historian William Trotterthe expression comes from Finnish, where it is “Molotovin koktali”.
Molotov was one of the signatories of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. The pact was apparently a non-aggression treaty between the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler; but the two powers also secretly agreed to divide Europe into Soviet and German spheres of conquest. Finland, which was once part of Sweden and had resisted its absorption by Russia for more than a century, fell into the Soviet sphere.
The Soviet Union invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, just months after the German and Soviet invasions of Poland – a conflict called the “Winter War”. But Molotov claimed on state radio that Soviet bombers were dropping not bombs, but humanitarian supplies on their starving neighbors, according to Trotter. So the Finns sarcastically dubbed the bombs “Molotov picnic baskets,” and later followed suit by calling their improvised incendiary bombs “Molotov cocktails,” Trotter said.
Trotter said the Molotov cocktails thrown by the Finns were particularly effective against the invaders because early Soviet tanks were fueled by gasoline – which ignites easily – and not, like most modern tanks, diesel, which is not as flammable.
History of Molotov cocktails
Although Molotov cocktails take their name from the Finnish-Soviet Winter War, their history is older than that – dating back at least to the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to early 1939.
Molotov cocktails, Trotter explained, were used by Spanish Nationalist soldiers against Soviet tanks supporting the Spanish Republicans in the Battle of Seseña in 1936; and Tom Wintringham, an English volunteer with the International Brigades – military units that fought for Nationalist forces in that civil war – said they were also used by Republicans against Nationalist tanks.
Winringham said Picture Post magazine in 1940 that the fighters took glass jars filled with “petroleum” — gasoline — and covered them with pieces of blankets or curtains; after spraying the covering fabric with the fuel and setting it on fire, they threw it in front of a tank.
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“The cover should hook onto the tracks or a cog wheel, or wrap around an axle,” Wintringham said. “The bottle will shatter, but the gasoline must soak the blanket well enough to make a really healthy fire, which will burn the rubber wheels the tank tracks run on, set the carburettor on fire, or stun the crew.”
“Don’t mess with these things,” he added. “They are very dangerous.”
The British at the start of World War II also used improvised hand-held incendiary bombs when Britain feared a German invasion.
According to a 1943 British Home Guard history by Charles Graves, its leader, General Edmund Ironside, in June 1940 described “Molotov cocktails” as “that thing they developed in Finland…a bottle filled with resin, gasoline or tar, which if thrown over a tank will ignite.” A few months later the British War Office had produced instructions for their creation and use by the Home Guard.
In the later stages of the war, soldiers replaced the crude burning wick with other substances that ignited on impact, such as the white phosphorus used in the British No. 76 grenade, according to ww2db.com website; or the mixture of sulfuric acid, potassium chlorate and sugar developed by the Polish resistance movement, writes chemical expert Anne Marie Helmenstine on Thought Co.
But the original rudimentary version is still there. Molotov cocktails have often been used during episodes of unrest in the United States, notably during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, reports the New York Timesand in the 2020 nationwide riots following the death of George Floyd, reports ABC News; several of these cases resulted in felony convictions.
Perhaps fortunately, versions of Molotov cocktails that do not ignite at all have also been developed. The most famous “puputovs” – glass jars filled with human excrement and a play on the word Molotov – were used against government officials, police and soldiers by rioters during political protests in Venezuela in 2017, according to the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion.
-Learn more about the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, including the involvement of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, on The History Channel.
—This Wilson Center page provides more background on the history of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister.
— The Wilson Center also provides more history and details on Molotov’s proposal that the USSR join NATO in March 1954.