The Molotov cocktail was the ironic name chosen by the Finns for their main weapon against Soviet tanks during the four months of their war in 1939-40. The Finns gave the Soviets a hiding – more than 126,000 dead compared with 48,243 Finns killed – before weight of numbers helped the Red Army to victory. The Red Army was poorly equipped and its soldiers badly trained, and the war against Finland was a disaster that clearly showed Soviet weaknesses – which may have persuaded the Germans to open an eastern front and march into Soviet territory in 1941.
The Germans met little opposition. Three-quarters of the Red Army were peasants who trained with wooden guns and wrapped their feet in strips of cloth because there were no boots. The life expectancy of a Red Army soldier was three months. Many had been dispossessed by Stalin’s collectivising of farms and were resentful. Mass desertions were frequent. The Soviet Union lost eight million soldiers, compared with less than 250,000 British and American casualties.
Catherine Merridale has done a formidable amount of research, much of it from veteran soldiers, and she presents it clearly and often elegantly.