These days he wears Armani

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. By Mark Galeotti. Yale University Press; 344 pages; $28 and £20.

MANY labels have been applied to Vladimir Putin’s Russia: kleptocracy, post-modern authoritarianism and, in Barack Obama’s ill-advised put-down, a “regional power”. One that stuck came from a Spanish prosecutor in a mob trial. He described modern Russia as a “mafia state”.

It is a memorable phrase, but what does that notion actually entail? Mark Galeotti, an expert on this murky subject, offers the best answer to date. “The Vory”—meaning “The Thieves”—is a colourful and comprehensive guide to the intersection of crime and politics in Russia.

The unwritten rules of the criminal underworld developed under the tsars, when the country’s serfs—a big chunk of the population—lived under a code that smiled on occasional diddling of feudal overlords. “Theft of wood from the landlords’ or tsar’s forest”, Mr Galeotti writes, was no sin. That ethos persisted amid the mutual cynicism of relations between the Communist Party and the Soviet Union’s citizens. Scarcity, uncertainty, and the gap between Soviet ideology and practice allowed criminal structures to flourish. As is often the case, prison—known as the akademiya—proved conducive to schooling villains in their shared culture.

At first, Soviet “thieves”—the preferred term for criminal authorities of various ranks—were wary of the government, and forbade the entanglement of their noble pursuits with the state’s. They looked down on the suki, or bitches, who made common cause with state organs and officials. Yet the scale and horror of Stalin’s gulag broke that prohibition, opening up the opportunity for a “new generation of vory to collaborate with dishonest party functionaries when they felt it was in their interest”. That shift proved decisive—not just for the criminal underworld but the country as a whole, perhaps even for the world.

Finally, in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika “shattered the state, but also unleashed new market forces that the vory would prove best placed to exploit”. The tumultuous, Hobbesian, often violent version of capitalism that followed proved the “perfect incubator” for a brand that became infamous: the Russian mafia.

Mr Putin ascended to the presidency avowedly intent on restoring the authority of the Kremlin. The more independent-minded vory were marginalised or eliminated. Others were co-opted, so long as they played by the new rules—avoid destabilising violence and defer to the interests of the Putin system, the “biggest gang in town”. The state consolidated its power, Mr Galeotti says, by “not simply taming but absorbing the underworld”. The gangsters were partially nationalised; the state adopted some of their mores.

Not only Russia, but the whole of the West, has been affected by this amalgamation. Mr Galeotti documents how criminal figures and outfits have been useful to the Kremlin in its semi-covert operations in Ukraine. Hackers from the criminal underworld are equally handy, a shadow force that can carry out an assignment without leaving the state’s fingerprints.

Mr Galeotti’s insight is that today’s vory are not the crude, tattooed mob of a generation or two ago. They are clever, smooth entrepreneurs, equally at ease with Russian government ministers and Western financiers. Importantly, Mr Galeotti says they “are not interested in challenging or undermining the West, but in enjoying the opportunities it provides”.

That means it is, in large measure, up to Western politicians and business people—bankers, lawyers, property brokers—to determine how deeply the vory are able to infiltrate their societies. Mr Galeotti questions whether Western institutions can resist the “common temptation to turn a blind eye to money that is slightly grubby”. The particular folkways and culture of the vory may be essentially Russian, but the impulse to make a quick buck when nobody is looking is found the world over.