In this episode
Molotov cocktails! What are they? How do they work? What’s up with the funky name? And how come they don’t immediately explode in people’s hands?
You notice the smell first. Petrol, maybe mixed with some resin, latex or tar. You wear gloves and a mask against spillage. Also it’s safest to wait no more than 30 seconds after the fuse is lit.
Hello and welcome to Vulnerable By Design with me, Chris Onrust. Today we talk: Molotov cocktails! What are they? How do they work? What’s up with the funky name? And how come they don’t immediately explode in people’s hands?
What is a Molotov cocktail?
Well, first off: What exactly is a Molotov cocktail? A Molotov cocktail is not the sort of mix that will make you popular at parties. Or at least not the sort of parties that I go to. Officially, a ‘molly’ is an incendiary device. Meaning: it’s designed to cause fire. And it typically consists of a bottle, some flammable liquid, and something to set that liquid alight. In other words, Molotov cocktails are portable tools made largely out of everyday, DIY household materials that anyone could easily lay their hands on. And it’s designed to start a fire.
How is all of that meant to work? The Anarchist Cookbook—a 1971 handbook for revolutionaries and anyone who wants to stand up against oppression and fight for human dignity—this cookbook describes how this incendiary device (the Molotov cocktail) is meant to work. You have:
“… a bottle filled with flammable liquid such as gasoline, mixed with oil or soap powder to thicken it. A fuse, usually a rag soaked in gasoline is attached to the cork, lit, and thrown. The bottle breaks on contact with another hard object, and the gasoline ignites, causing a burst of flame.”
And the author ads:
“According to reports, they can disable a tank.”
I should probably also note that The Anarchist Cookbook comes with a disclaimer that the topics it covers are “illegal”, “dangerous” and “[constitute] a threat”, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Or, more formally:
“This book is not for children or morons”.
So we know a Molotov cocktail is not, a such, an explosive device. It is primarily meant to start a fire. That also explains why, when someone lights such a bottle, it generally doesn’t immediately explode in their hands. It’s basically just a lit fuse, with plenty of fuel to keep it going. Though, of course, there can be a bit of build-up of explosive gases within the bottle. So, for safety reasons, it’s probably best always to throw it away quickly once it’s lit. I mean, fire burns are serious enough.
Fire as a weapon
Molotov cocktails can start fires. That means they can be dangerous. That means they can have devastating effects. That means they can, in exceptional circumstances, be used as a weapon.
Fire has been used as a weapon since … forever. So you might think that Molotovs have been around for ages too? But actually, we only have records for this specific technique going back to quite recent times. Early on, any vessels containing flammable liquid just wouldn’t break very well, and the flame would just die out. I have seen reports of some form of fiery bottles being used: in the First World War; by Ethiopian forces in the mid 1930s to defend against the Italian invasion; in the Spanish Civil War; and by the Chinese against Japanese troops invading Shanghai in 1937. But these devices would not yet have been called ‘Molotov cocktails’. The ‘molly’ got its name only slightly later.
Remember the so-called ‘Winter War’ of 1939 to 1940? When the Soviet Union invaded Finland, pretending that the Finns were a threat to the security of Leningrad—now St. Petersburg—just across the border? Well, that invasion came with quite some aerial bombing campaign, including of the Finnish capital Helsinki, using RRAB-3 cluster bombs (rotationally dispersing aviation bombs). The Finns didn’t like that. The international community, mostly, didn’t like that. It got the Soviets kicked out of the League of Nations.
Allegedly, when pressed on the bombing, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov suggested that the Soviet Union wasn’t bombing the Finnish cities at all. No. It was actually dropping humanitarian aid to a hungry population. Yeah, me neither.
Anyway, that led to the Finnish people dubbing the cluster bombs “Molotov’s breadbaskets”. And if Minister Molotov was so generous in sharing their food, maybe they, and all of the Soviet tanks rolling into Finnish territory, maybe they would like a drink with that too? Yeah? Which is to say that even though the Soviet Union had, at that point, a much stronger, better equipped military force, the Finns did put up a stout resistance. Including with the mass production of polttopullo, aka burning bottles, aka Molotov cocktails. That did indeed prove effective. Not so much in destroying tanks, but in making tanks, well, unusable. Though with the subsequent armistice and the Moscow Peace Treaty, Finland did end up losing around 9% of its existing territory.
Slowing down tanks
One line in The Anarchist Cookbook reads:
“A revolution, to be successful, must be a balance between passion and practicality. Revolution must employ the maximum amount of planning and a minimum amount of violence and destruction.”
Fire, it burns things. If people get caught up in a fire, it burns people. All other things being equal. Nobody—no person—would want to have any need for throwing a Molotov cocktail or for starting a fire. Nobody would choose to have to slow down a tank with burning bottles if they could also lounge in a park with a hot drink and read poetry. But sometimes, this is the reality. Sometimes the tanks are there. Sometimes all you have at hand is an empty bottle, a piece of cloth and some flammable liquid.
Thank you for joining us at Vulnerable By Design this week. If you would like to hear more or get in touch, you’ll find all our episodes and contact information on vulnerablebydesign.net.
We are sending strength and solidarity to all the people on the ground in Ukraine right now, who are standing up for freedom, dignity and independence. Take care of each other. Stay free.
I’m Chris Onrust. Thank you for listening.
- Want to help Ukraine’s military as a foreigner? Here’s what you can do, The Kyiv Independent, by Illia Ponomarenko, 31 January 2022.
- The Anarchist Cookbook, by William Powell, 1971.
- Weapons of War: Molotov Cocktail, Finland at War, by Laurance Robinson.
- Urban Warfare Project podcast, by John Spencer.