Across the west, institutions that collaborated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia are having a moment of revelation. Lawyers who persecuted investigative journalists and a financial service industry that feasted on oligarchical loot are shocked beyond measure by the invasion of Ukraine.
They happily overlooked the levelling of Grozny, the war crimes in Aleppo, the missile attacks on civilian flights, the invasion of Crimea, the destructions of Russian democracy, the endemic corruption, the endless lying, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Alexei Navalny. Only now they realise that the Kremlin may not be a reputable business partner after all.
In the 20th century, the opponents of totalitarianism on the left talked of their “Kronstadt moment” – the instant when they realised Soviet communism was not an emancipatory force but a foul tyranny. Today we see “Mariupol moments” as everywhere the men and women who excused and profited from the Russian empire express their determination to do better. Everywhere, that is, except the one place where self-criticism is needed most: the Anglo-American right.
No Conservative leader has matched Keir Starmer’s instruction to tyrannophile MPs to renounce Jeremy Corbyn’s Stop the War movement for giving “succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies”.
The Tory press will run as many pieces as it can on the inability of Corbyn and his allies to call imperialism and militarism by the right names even as the cruise missiles land. Yet nowhere do they find space for examinations of its failure to confront Nigel Farage for his “admiration” of Putin’s skill as an operator, or to ask why the Russian ambassador liked Farage’s bagman Arron Banks so much he offered him “opportunities not available to others” in the form of Siberian gold mines and the support of a Kremlin bank. Nowhere do we hear Tories talk of their determination to build an impassable border between democratic conservatism and the authoritarian right.
The Conservatives in power have allowed corruption to flourish. Their failure to come to the immediate aid of Ukrainian refugees disgraced their party and their country. But you cannot pretend that Russian money has bought Conservative foreign policy. Boris Johnson and the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, are feted in Ukraine for supplying the resistance with weapons and training. They fight against Putin abroad but will not condemn his admirers at home.
Similarly, Republicans in the US Congress have implicitly rejected Donald Trump by voting for Joe Biden’s vast package of military aid for Ukraine, while refusing to explicitly take on Trump’s tenderness for the Russian regime.
The only attempt at a reckoning I have seen in our rightwing press was by one Eric Kaufmann, a populist professor of politics (if you can picture such a creature) at Birkbeck, University of London. Writing more in sorrow than in anger, that greasiest of styles, he sighs that it is a “real shame for populist conservatism” that Steve Bannon, Trump, Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and Viktor Orbán had “carried water for this killer”. If only they had concentrated on attacking wokeness, crime and immigration, all would have been well.
Didn’t he notice that their water carrying was not an eccentric aberration? Trump subverted elections in the US and Orbán all but abolished press freedom in Hungary. Indulgence for Putin on the “alt-right” wasn’t a bug but a feature, because he offered a road to autocracy his western admirers yearned to follow.
The partisan do not like to take on their “side” for fear of giving comfort to the enemy. Perhaps more conservatives than said so in public admired Putin for being a white, muscular Christian leader who opposed the evils of liberalism. Or maybe they hated the EU as much as Putin hated the EU and, in the words of Trump’s sidekick Bannon, “believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions”. But the best explanation for the silence is that the complicit find it hard to condemn. There is no clear dividing line between the right and the far right in the 2020s.
The supposedly mainstream Johnson is threatening to institute voter suppression and is attacking the independence of every institution from the BBC to the House of Commons. He is not on the same level as an Orbán, let alone a Putin, but if Britain were ever to have an authoritarian leader, this government would have cleared their path. In an episode that has been too quickly forgotten, the Conservative party and Brexit party worked as an alliance in the 2019 general election, and, who knows, may need an electoral pact in future. Finally, to return to the oligarchs and their lawyers, you should never underestimate the chilling effect of the English law on public debate. Banks’s decision to sue the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr personally, so that she faces ruin if she loses, is a sobering deterrent to Tories searching for the courage to speak out.
Conservatives can always find reasons to postpone their Mariupol moment, particularly when any investigation of Russian influence runs into the Brexit referendum, whose sacral purity can never be questioned.
The history of the left shows why they should make the effort. In 1948, the Labour politician Richard Crossman edited The God That Failed, a collection of essays by writers who had lost their illusions about Russian communism. Louis Fischer, who had been a foreign correspondent in Moscow, blamed himself for not seeing the truth about communism in 1921 when sailors at the Kronstadt naval base outside St Petersburg were shot for demanding freedom of speech, trade union rights and the release of political prisoners.
Fischer had his Kronstadt moment after seeing Stalin use the secret police to settle political disputes in the 1930s (plus ça change, you may say). Others had theirs when Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up eastern Europe in 1939, or when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956.
A few never reached Kronstadt. They switched their allegiance from Soviet communism to Putinist gangsterism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and carried on as before. They became Corbyn’s senior advisers and led the Labour party to a devastating defeat in 2019.
Their lesson is that, if you don’t cut out the rot on your own side, it will bring your house down. That silence on the right will one day be broken by the tolling of a funeral bell.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist