Monte Melkonian, the Comrade in Struggles



We do not believe in heroes. Yet, when collective ideas and praxis incarnate into one historical figure, who, in turn, contributes to them, we think that a surge of this figure in the internationalist imaginary can prove politically useful. This is why we commissioned Garine Boghossian to write this text about Armenian internationalist activist, Monte Melkonian.

Featured Image
Mural representing Monte Melkonian accompanied by the Armenian and Artsakh flags on the road between Yerevan and Sevan. / Photo by Gardmanahay (2021).

There was Monte, alias Saro, peering through sandbags in Iranian Kurdistan. Then came Monte, alias Abu Sindi, huddling with Yasser Arafat under a hailstorm of shrapnel in Beirut. Then there was Monte, prisoner number 751783, alone in a dark cell in a prison outside Paris. Next came Monte, now alias Timothy Sean McCormich, collecting soda bottles on the street after a rally for slobodan Milosevic, the new leader of a Yugoslavia that was sliding into madness. And finally, there was commander Avo in the distant mountains of Karabakh, peering through binoculars at a battlefield strewn with buckled armor.” (Markar Melkonian, My brother’s road, 2005).

Monte Melkonian’s revolutionary journey started as a protestor against the U.S. war in Vietnam, and ended in 1993, on the battlefield for the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout his life, he participated in struggles from the Red Brigades in Italy, to the Iranian revolution, the Kurdish resistance, the Palestinian liberation movement and struggle, the Lebanese civil war, and the Armenian armed struggle in the Diaspora. A third generation Armenian-American from California and a trained archeologist from University of California, Berkeley, Monte left the United States in his early twenties and traveled the world to join oppressed peoples’ struggles, primarily focusing on the Armenian struggle.

His published letters reveal his commitment to the notions of self-determination and anti-colonialism guided by Lenin’s ethos, while his active participation in the fight for the oppressed are a testimony to his engagement, applying his beliefs into practice.

Twenty eight years after his death, his legacy as a national hero and a military commander of the first Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh war lives on. However, despite his internationalist militant life, few people know about Monte. This account, a compilation of his ideas and views, is an attempt to surge Monte’s struggle beyond the Armenian imaginary. His life is not only an embodiment of Armenians’ fight for justice but all people struggling for freedom and dignity. Extrapolating from his life in the past, we shed light and empower the struggles of today.

An Internationalist Marxist View of the Struggle for Self-Determination ///

As a teenager, together with his family, Monte traveled to Western Armenia, modern day Turkey, to visit his grandparents’ ancestral town in Marsovan/Merzifon. It is through this journey, upon seeing a far away home his family had both lost and been denied access to, that Monte’s imaginary of a homeland started taking shape. In response to a comrade’s critique on his attachment with Armenian lands under Turkish occupation, Monte explained that it is justifiable for a people to have a mentality of attachment to a portion of a homeland from which they have been excluded. The Armenian people have been denied that right: the right to choose to live in any part of their homeland. In his view, the mentality of funneling all Armenians into (back then) Soviet Armenia overlooks the historical and cultural realities of the Armenian people and accepts a territorial status-quo produced by genocide and Turkish ethno-nationalist aggression. It is a status-quo that is maintained to this day by the Turkish army and NATO. This is the political discourse which socialists and internationalists must fight, he concluded.

Monte understood the struggle for liberation as a struggle that transcended ethno-religious boundaries. He believed that the Armenian Cause was best realized in tandem with other movements of oppressed peoples, through armed struggle. He was aware that the continued injustice against the Armenian people was not an isolated event but part of a larger system of exploitation, colonialism and imperialism. In a letter, published in May 1981, Melkonian discussed the significance of Newroz for Kurdish comrades, who are “struggling to cut the feudal bonds of the past and to establish a democratic, socialist and revolutionary Kurdistan.” He ended his letter by declaring: “Alongside us are our Kurdish compatriots, our Turkish comrades and all peoples struggling for their freedom and national rights. It is truly the dawn of a new day, a Newroz.”

In 1988, the people of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), within the de facto borders of independent Azerbaijan, voted in favor of a referendum that called for independence and the unification of the region with Armenia. This referendum came after decades of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republics policy of cultural de-Armenization in the region, of planned Azeri settlement squeezing the indigenous and majority Armenian population out and neglecting its economic needs. A planned ethnic cleansing with an eventual takeover of the autonomous oblast. Monte naturally supported the referendum and joined Armenian forces in the war that erupted following clashes between Armenians and Azeris. Despite his active involvement as a commander in the liberation war, Monte did not see self-determination as a means to national independence, nor did he consider national independence a goal, but a means to an end. “Only when an independent state structure can better serve (or at least not hinder) the economic, social and cultural development of a population should it be considered a higher form of self-determination” (The Right to Struggle, 1990), he writes. Aware of the economic factors that give rise to the urge to create national states, he adds that the “self-determination of nations in the Marxists’ Programme cannot, from a historico-economic point of view, have any other meaning than political self-determination, state independence, and the formation of a national state.” It is in this context that Monte saw the struggle for a free Artsakh.

Turkish-Armenian dialogue and the Unbearable Silence of the Turkish Left ///

Monte’s understanding of the Armenian liberation struggle included the struggle for Armenian national self-determination in those parts of Turkey where Armenians were expelled from. As such, he considered this struggle to be integral to the revolutionary movement in the various regions of present-day Turkey. Like Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor Monte never met, Melkonian believed that change would only come from within Turkey, and therefore that dialogue between the two people is crucial. In 2007, Hrant Dink was assassinated in broad daylight in Istanbul. Following his death, the streets of Istanbul were flooded with thousands of people holding signs that read “Hemipiz Ermeniyiz, Hepimiz Hrant Dink” (“We are all Armenians, we are all Hrant Dink”). Yet, 14 years after Hrant’s assassination, the silence of the Turkish left weighs heavy. It was especially silent last year in the war on the Armenians of Artsakh, when Turkish generals were involved in strategizing the moves of the Azeri army in Baku, when F-16 jets made accessible by NATO-member turkey, and when Turkish made bayraktar drones were being deployed to wage a bloody war that took the lives of thousands of people. Additionally, the notion of the genocide (and particularly genocide denial) further complicates the reticent attitudes of the Turkish left. And, while different factions among the Turkish left have, in one form or another, recognized the genocide, they seem far from assuming its political, social and economic consequences on Armenia and the Armenian people today.

Perhaps this is where Melkonian’s view of the intricate nature of the dialogue becomes fruitful. Monte repeatedly emphasized the crucial importance of organizational cooperation among Armenian, Turkish, and Kurdish insurgents. He clarified that dialogue should not happen with state representatives that do not represent the people but, rather, among revolutionaries. But much has changed since Monte’s death, and today, it seems more and more difficult to engage with an increasingly fascist state where most Turkish revolutionary voices have been subdued or are sitting in prison.

Imperialism in the New World Order ///

In a draft written in 1987 from Poissy Prison outlining a political manifesto for his envisioned Armenian Patriotic Liberation Movement, Monte identifies seven core principles: 1) [revolutionary] internationalism, 2) democracy (and self-determination as a democratic decision-making right), 3) socialism, 4) feminism, 5) environmentalism (and the fight against transnational corporations in this context), 6) anti-imperialism , and 7) peace and disarmament. Indeed, despite being a military commander and spending the majority of his short-lived life in armed contexts, at no point did Monte fetishize the culture of guns and wars. He saw his participation in them as a necessity in order to be able to enjoy a free world. 

Three years after writing this manifesto, and upon visiting Armenia in 1990, Monte’s understanding and assessment of soviet socialism became harsher, yet he remained a committed marxist and an anti-imperialist in the last years of his life. In a monograph dated June 8, 1990, Monte wrote “class struggle is being waged ferociously, but in some places it is being waged by client states of the U.S., with almost no organized opposition. In the coming decade and the century which follows, the imperialists themselves will dash the sweet dreams of the sentimentalists on the left. In the maquiladoras and shantytowns, the barrios, haciendas and favelas — and in the “post-industrial” capitalist countries themselves — the class struggle will reassert itself as a two-way struggle.”

Like others before and after him, Monte considered  the fate of Artsakh crucial for the long-term security of the entire Armenian nation. Indeed, three decades after the first Artsakh liberation war, and less than a year after the second war that resulted in the handover of major lands including those connecting Artsakh to Armenia in 2020, the Azerbaijani army has been gradually encroaching on Armenia proper this time. These new offensives on independent Armenia make it clear that its intentions go well beyond Artsakh, and align with pan-turkic and neo-Ottoman desires to connect Azerbaijan to Turkey through the Zangezur corridor, south of Armenia. As for Russia, which seeks to maintain the Caucasus within its sphere of influence, the no-resolution for the ongoing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a tool for the former colonial power to maintain leverage on both sides. Indeed, for Putin, the outbreak of fighting is a useful reminder to the Armenian administration of the post-velvet 2018 revolution, as well as the Armenian people in general, of the indispensability of Russian intervention in its conflict.

Monte led his life fighting against both imperial nationalism and the petty nationalism of the Armenian bourgeoisie. He is remembered as a cheerful comrade, a brave fedai, a brilliant strategist who left this world too soon, far away from his vision of a homeland shared by revolutionary Armenians, Kurds and Turks.

Who Remembers the Armenians?

I remember them

and I ride the nightmare bus with them

each night

and my coffee, this morning

I’m drinking it with them

You, murderer —

Who remembers you?

Najwan Darwish, Nothing More to Lose (2014).

Who Remembers the Palestinians?

after Najwan Darwish

We do

and I ride the bus to the Nakba protest with them

each day

and my soorj, this morning

We are drinking it with them

You, genocider —

Who remembers you?

Sophia Armen (2021). ■