Yesterday, Joe Biden was in Moscow, praising “reset.” At Moscow University he offered only the most minimal support for reform. We are helping Russia join the World Trade Organization (another unilateral and self-defeating gesture). But Biden cautions that “investors and companies are looking not just for better trade policies but for assurances that the legal system that exists in each of the countries in which they wish to invest, the legal system treats them fairly and acts on their concerns swiftly.” In private, he was supposedly more candid about Russia’s appalling human rights record.

Yesterday, I was talking to the son of the energy magnate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has imprisoned. Pavel Khodorkovsky, who now lives in New York, told me he hasn’t seen or talked to his father, Mikhail, in seven and a half years. He did, however, receive a letter from him last week. Mikhail was the CEO of the giant oil company Yukos, which was seized by the Russian government. He was tried on a wide array of trumped-up charges in 2005, and if that were not enough, he was tried again in 2009 and received a 14-year sentence.

I asked Pavel Khodorkovsky what he thinks of the Obama administration’s efforts to get Russia into the WTO. In somewhat accented but impeccable English, he said: “There is a debate.” One school of thought is that we should use the WTO admission as a “lever” to impact Russia’s domestic and international behavior. The other is that if Russia “is dragged into WTO, we will have more levers.” Khodorkovsky said bluntly: “I don’t share that point of view. For the Russian government it is a matter of status. It will further embolden them.”

Khodorkovsky also encouraged the European Union and the United States to deny visas to officials associated with human rights abuses, including his father’s show trials. He said that it is an important message to Russian officials. “All they care about is to travel and spend their money abroad.” If the EU and the United States won’t let them in, that will be a powerful disincentive for others to engage in human rights abuses. It will also, he said, “undermine” top officials who, like the Mafia, promise protection to their underlings in exchange for doing their bidding. If that guarantee is found to be worthless, then the power of those Russian elites is diminished.

What about Putin’s expected run for the presidency? Khodorkovsky replied, “My father’s trial has shown that it doesn’t really matter what seat he [Putin] holds.” Whether Putin “swaps” posts with President Dmitry Medvedev or remains as prime minister, “the power is concentrated in Putin’s hands.” As for Medvedev, Khodorkovsky “can’t say with a high degree of certainty” whether he has an actual interest in reform. What he can say is that “all of his deeds or lack thereof indicates he’s a figure controlled by Putin.” Medvedev remains a more effective and tolerable figure for those in the West who would like to do business (in both senses of the word) with Russia, but Medvedev is just a prettier face on a very nasty regime.

Why did Putin find it necessary to try his father a second time? Khodorkovsky explained that Putin wants to keep Mikhail in jail for a very long time and views him as a serious threat to his rule. Even though Mikhail has renounced any intention to return to business or to become a unifying figure for the Putin opposition, Khodorkovsky said Putin remains fearful that Mikhail will in fact become the opposition leader who has been missing from the political landscape.

The other reason is financial and reveals “how these people think,” Khodorkovsky explained. Rosneft, the Russian government-owned company that took over Yukos, is being sued in Europe by former Yukos executives demanding compensation for their stakes in the company that Rosneft plundered. In the minds of Russian leaders like Putin (who don’t understand what an independent judiciary is all about), releasing Mikhail would somehow “galvanize” the court to rule against Rosneft, while his imprisonment will do the reverse.

All of this, Khodorkovsky told me, demonstrates that “Putin is as much a prisoner of his position as my father is a prisoner in jail.” By that he means that should Putin lose control, corruption investigations and criminal tribunals would be real possibilities. So Putin continues to rule with an iron fist that he believes is needed because Khodorkovsky said there are “no other options” for him in Russia that he does not control.

Now Khodorkovsky has some hope that Putin is not “blind to the consequences” of his authoritarian rule and might seek to ease up in hopes of preventing an explosion (the non-communist version of Glasnost). However, he certainly doesn’t see that happening before the Russian election in 2012.

Can the United States affect Putin’s behavior? Khodorkovsky contends that Russia desperately needs foreign investment and innovation to keep the country from slipping into economic ruin. Ironically, Putin’s desire to cut off economic diversification and restrict freedom has now made him and his regime more dependent on foreign businessmen and leaders.

Has the “Arab spring” made Putin nervous? Khodorkovsky is convinced that Putin and his cronies are “absolutely scared” that revolutions and demands for political freedom will reverberate in Russia. He recalled a Russian blogger who met a Tunisian when they were both studying at Yale. At the time, the blogger thought Tunisia had “so many enemies of freedom” that a revolution would never happen there. The message there, Khodorkovsky told me, is that if it can happen in Tunisia it can happen in Russia.

But Russia is not Tunisia or Egypt. After all, the Russians for centuries have put up with corruption and a rotten economy. Has the country simply become inured to a dysfunctional society? Khodorkovsky was blunt, telling me that “the older generation -- they have contaminated the younger generation” with a mindset of passivity. He explained that it boils down to this: “’We don’t care unless there is no food on the table or [authorities] are banging on the door.’” Khodorkovsky said it’s not so much that the Russian people are “content with any government,” but, rather, that they hold an “I don’t give a damn” mentality.

That may be. But many assumptions about the inability of societies to mature and step out of historical patterns should ward off fatalism. Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains a symbol of what Russia could be. The question is whether this or any other U.S. administration can help shove Russia’s government in the right direction.