November 08, 2012

Molotov cocktail

Light a candle to remember Vyacheslav Molotov who died today in 1986.

n. a makeshift incendiary device for throwing by hand, consisting of a bottle or other breakable container filled with flammable liquid and with a piece of cloth, etc., as a fuse

Oxford English Dictionary

How will history remember perhaps the only man to have shaken hands with Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? With a riot-rousing, tank-busting, flaming bottle of Finnish pride.

Just three months after Germany invaded Poland and sparked World War II, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939 and began what would be called the Winter War. Struggling against woefully outnumbered but frustratingly plucky Finnish snipers and camouflaged ski troops, the Soviets began relying on the RRAB-3, a cluster bomb dispenser. At the time, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov insisted in radio broadcasts that Russia was dropping food, and not bombs, on the starving Finns—which led to the RRAB-3s being dubbed “Molotov’s bread basket.” The Finns had used incendiary devices developed during the Spanish Civil War three years earlier to combat the invading Soviet tanks and called them “Molotov cocktails” as “a drink to go with the food.”

Molotov’s name came to encompass both the flaming mixture of ethanol, tar, and gasoline and the bottle that delivered it. The devices proved to be so successful that nearly a half million were mass-produced (and bundled with matches) during the Winter War. Early prototypes with burning rags in the mouth of the bottle were replaced by storm matches attached to the bottle and then to ones that ignited on impact.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skriabin was born the son of a shop clerk in 1890. Before he turned twenty he had become a Bolshevik and decided he might bolster his political career by changing his name to Molotov from the Russian word for hammer, molot. Though many of his rivals considered him simply a mindless bureaucrat, he eventually became the protégé of Joseph Stalin. He was reviled by some and feared by many. Leon Trotsky famously called him “mediocrity personified,” while Winston Churchill considered him “a man of outstanding ability and cold-blooded ruthlessness.”

By the mid-1950s, Nikita Khruschev and other Communist leaders began denouncing Stalin’s legacy, and Molotov was first removed as Foreign Minister and then expelled from the Communist party altogether in 1961. He was eventually allowed to rejoin the Party in 1984, but died two years later at the age of ninety-six. The Soviet Union dissolved five years later.

Early in his career, the Soviet leader’s name was also attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin, a non-aggression treaty that lasted only two years before Hitler turned his conquering eyes from France to the Soviet Union. But this association is just a historical footnote. Molotov’s etymological infamy will forever reside with his “bread basket” and, especially, “cocktail” namesakes—somewhat ironically, as Molotov was actually a teetotaling vegetarian.