Molotov cocktail named after Soviet official

I noticed in the news from Bangkok the words "Molotov cocktail." Where did that meaning for a hand-held firebomb come from?

— Scott H., Medford

We here at the Since You Asked Museum of Military History thought we knew the answer to this without any research, but a quick check proved we were only partly right.

As we suspected, the Molotov cocktail gets its name from Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, who was chairman of the Council of People's Commissars in the Soviet Union during World War II. But it turns out, the crude weapon was used not by the Soviet Union, but against it.

It's a somewhat convoluted story, but the short version goes like this: In 1939, during the Soviet invasion of Finland, the Soviet air force dropped incendiary and cluster bombs on the Finns. But, in radio broadcasts, Molotov insisted the Soviets were not dropping bombs but rather delivering food to the starving Finns.

Those bombs were derisively called "Molotov bread baskets" by the Finns.

What became known as the Molotov cocktail had already been used in the Spanish Civil War. It's a simple, but nasty, device: a bottle filled with gasoline or some other flammable liquid and then stuffed with a rag soaked in the liquid.

The rag is lighted, the bottle thrown and when it makes contact and breaks, it effectively becomes a small firebomb.

It is regularly used by insurgents and violent protesters because it can easily be manufactured with common ingredients.

The soldiers of the Finnish Army used Molotov cocktails against Red Army tanks in two wars with the Soviet Union, even mass-producing them at one point with a match bundle instead of a rag stuffed in the neck of the bottle.

They called it the Molotov cocktail to mock Molotov, saying they were providing the drink to match his deadly "bread basket."

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