What is a Molotov cocktail?
News footage of the war in Ukraine shows Ukrainian civilians reportedly making Molotov cocktails to defend their homeland against Russian forces. But what are Molotov cocktails, and when in history were they first used?
A Molotov cocktail is an improvised incendiary firebomb, made by placing a flammable item such as a cloth or a rag inside a breakable bottle of fuel – usually petrol or alcohol – which is lit just before the bottle is thrown. When the bottle breaks on impact, the cloud of flammable substance ignites, causing an immediate fireball.
They were first used during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39, when the Spanish general and future ruler of the country Francisco Franco ordered his Nationalist troops to use them against Soviet-supplied tanks who were supporting the Republicans. But they did not get their name until the First Soviet-Finnish War (aka ‘the Winter War’) of 1939–40, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. In the face of international protests against the invasion, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslev Molotov claimed that Russian aircraft were dropping humanitarian food deliveries, not bombs. Finnish citizens mockingly dubbed the Soviet bombs “Molotov’s bread baskets”, and gave their home-made bottle bombs the name “Molotov cocktail”, as “a drink to go with the food”.
In the 1940s, with the prospect of a possible Nazi invasion on the horizon, many Britons made their own Molotov cocktails. And years later, in Northern Ireland, Molotov cocktails were used by paramilitary groups and protesters.
The Molotov cocktail is today seen as a symbol of rebellion and has featured in several protests around the world.
In the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv in 2022, civilians “have borrowed the Finnish recipe book to greet a new generation of Russian invaders with petrol and fire,” writes historian Peter Caddick-Adams. Molotov cocktails are being made and stored in their millions, ready for the Russian invaders.