Some of us speculate occasionally, albeit without real cupidity, about what we would do if we suddenly found ourselves in possession of a billion pounds. Even after funding a big house with lots of staff, car with chauffeur, yacht, helicopter and suchlike, there would be enough left to live on the interest, with a few hundred million to spare.

I suppose one could entrust the money to an enlightened soul to give to deserving causes, but not many billionaires are enlightened enough to do that. Instead, there are today so many doggedly materialistic possessors of surplus wealth that a huge luxury goods industry exists to succour their plight.

In Paris recently, I heard of a restaurant frequented by Russian oligarchs, where woodcock features on the menu. In France it is illegal to sell this delicious little bird. The restaurant exploits its scarcity value by charging $450, and finds plenty of takers. The place’s average bill for lunch for two is over $1,200. This is a boon for those with more cash than they know what to do with.

Yet how could any human being, however devoted to consuming illegal woodcock, want $40bn? This was my first thought, on reading the Guardian’s report last week about the alleged secret fortune of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

The story is plausible as evidence suggests that once a head of state finds himself free to write personal cheques on a national treasury, the privilege almost invariably goes to his head. Some African leaders pocket billions, Robert Mugabe notable among them. A World Bank report suggests that the sums stolen by the continent’s politicians since the end of the colonial era exceed those given to it in aid.

The international community is dismayed by the prospect that Jacob Zuma is likely to become South Africa’s next president — despite an aide’s conviction on corruption charges and the likelihood that Zuma himself will face a similar indictment. Alas, however, Zuma’s elevation would merely indicate that South Africa is joining the global pack. Transparency International’s reports show that far more countries are corrupt than are not. In South America, for instance, Chile is a beacon of integrity in a continent where corruption is endemic.

In many places, the cancer reaches from the base of the system — slipping banknotes into a driving licence to dissuade a policeman from issuing a speeding fine — to the summit: theft by ministers from national exchequers. In Britain, we are made uncomfortable by allegations of bribery against BAE, with supposed government collusion, to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Occasional police and local authority corruption cases make news. But we still have grounds for self-congratulation.

It does not seem too extravagant to say that Russia will never become a successful society unless it abandons its gangster ethos. It is scarcely relevant whether Putin has helped himself to $40m or $40bn. What matters is that those who wield power in Russia live beyond the law, a reality that benights any society which falls victim to it. — The Guardian