The history of the Molotov cocktail, an iconic weapon of underdogs

Ukrainians race to make the bombs now, just like the many rebels, protestors, and defenders worldwide who came before them.

Published 11 Mar 2022, 09:26 GMT
A member of the Sandinastas throws a Molotov cocktail at National Guard headquarters in Esteli, Nicaragua, ...
A member of the Sandinastas throws a Molotov cocktail at National Guard headquarters in Esteli, Nicaragua, in 1979. The photograph has become known as Molotov Man.
Photograph by Susan Meiselas, Magnum Photos

In the Ukrainian city of Lviv, students and artists make Molotov cocktails in an industrial space that used to host raves. In a suburb of Kyiv, a retired economist shows a CNN reporter her stock of the incendiary devices, explaining that she built them after searching for instructions on Google. In Dnipro, women gather outside to assemble the makeshift bombs.

“It seems like the only important thing to do now,” says a local teacher.

Citizens all over Ukraine are preparing vast quantities of Molotov cocktails to fight off Russian forces. For nearly a century, the device—called also a petrol bomb or a gasoline bomb—has been the most accessible weapon for underdogs fighting against a technologically superior enemy. Molotov cocktails are much more effective than stones, but not much harder to come by. All that’s needed is a glass bottle and a few flammable ingredients.

(Follow Ukraine's 30-year struggle for independence with this visual timeline.)

Protestors prepare to throw a Molotov cocktail toward police during clashes in 2012 near Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, masked men flee soldiers while one remains behind to throw one last Molotov cocktail in 1981.
Photograph by Ian Berry, Magnum Photos
A protestor prepares Molotov cocktails during the May 1968 civil unrest in Paris.
Photograph by Bruno Barbey, Magnum Photos

Russian tanks have long been the targets of Molotov cocktails. Right-wing nationalist rebels in the Spanish Civil War first used petrol bombs in 1937 against Soviet tanks supplied to the Republican government. In one encounter witnessed by an astonished British brigadier general, the homemade bombs managed to destroy nine tanks. Soon the Republican Army and the international brigades fighting by its side were using them too.

But the people of Finland were the ones who came up with the name. When Soviet forces attacked Finland in 1939, Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, claimed the warplanes were airlifting food to the country, not dropping bombs. The Finns responded by dubbing the bombs “Molotov’s bread baskets” and offered to provide drinks—or cocktails—to go with them. State liquor factories had already switched from making vodka to preparing bulk quantities of the improvised incendiary devices, which Finnish troops used with great effect against Soviet armour. The name “Molotov cocktail” stuck and quickly spread around the world.

Portraits of Molotov Cocktails, the weapon of choice with the the EuroMaidan protestors in Kiev. 

Photograph by Donald Weber

Using fire to their advantage, the protestors managed to create a series of barricades and defensive lines between themselves and the police, allowing the critical time to build up fortifications.

Photograph by Donald Weber

The weapon's simplicity and ability to be created from household items and accelerant has made it a staple of civilian-focussed conflicts since the Second World War. 

Photograph by Donald Weber

Is was named in response to Soviet forces - led by Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Molotov – who claimed to be delivering food to the civilians of Finland, whom they had just invaded, when in fact they were dropping bombs. These, which the Finnish targets described wryly as 'Molotov's bread baskets', were to be greeted with the similarly euphemistic 'cocktails.' 

Photograph by Donald Weber

During World War II, Britain seized on Molotov cocktails as an important defence against the feared Nazi invasion. In 1940, Tom Wintringham, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War’s international brigades, published a guide to Molotov cocktails in the popular British magazine Picture Post. After providing a recipe for the devices, he told readers how to use them.

“Wait for your tank. When near enough, your pal lights [the] petrol-soaked corner of the blanket. Throw the bottle and blanket as soon as this corner is flaring. (You cannot throw it far.) See that it drops in front of the tank. The blanket should catch in the tracks or in a cog-wheel, or wind itself round an axle. The bottle will smash, but the petrol should soak the blanket well enough to make a really healthy fire which will burn the rubber wheels on which the tank track runs, set fire to the carburetor or frizzle the crew.”

Do not play with these things,” he concluded. “They are highly dangerous.”

Anti-government protesters use Molotov cocktails to hold back police during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014.
Photograph by Jerome Sessini, Magnum Photos

The British government trained the Home Guard—men too old to fight in the regular army—in the use of what were called “cocktails à la Molotov.” In a training video volunteers were shown how to build a barricade to stop a Nazi tank before bombarding “old nasty” with Molotov cocktails.

The U.K. also mass manufactured “model 76 grenades”—Molotov cocktails with rubber dissolved in them to make the fuel adhesive and a white phosphorus ignition system that did not require the user to light a rag. Some six million of these grenades were made, with boxes stashed all around the country to allow British citizens to resist occupation much as Ukrainians are doing today. As recently as 2018, these stashes were still being uncovered by construction workers digging foundations.

A rioter in Belfast prepares a Molotov cocktail during a 1981 march in support of Bobby Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army who was on a hunger strike.
Photograph by Peter Marlow, Magnum Photos

Following World War II, when the Hungarian people rose up against Soviet control in 1956, the Molotov cocktail was their weapon of choice. They destroyed as many as 400 tanks before the rebellion was crushed.

Since then, Molotov cocktails have been used worldwide during protests and armed conflicts. Czechoslovakians heaved them at invading Warsaw Pact troops during the Prague Spring. Students chucked them at French police in Paris. Palestinians hurled them at Israeli soldiers. Sandinistas threw them at the National Guard in Nicaragua. Anti-shah protestors lobbed them during the Iranian revolution. Demonstrators in Hong Kong flung them during the recent Chinese crackdown. In the U.S., they’ve been ignited during racial protests.

When people feel the odds are stacked against them, Molotov cocktails are the weapons they still reach for, the weapons that undermine—with bright flashes of flame—the narrative of those with seemingly overwhelming power.

So it goes in Ukraine as well. The Kremlin claimed that Russian troops would be warmly welcomed in Ukraine. Instead, said Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska in a recent statement, “they have been shunned with Molotov cocktails.”

Molotov cocktails were the weapons of choice during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, even on a rainy day in Belfast in 1985.
Photograph by Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos
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