Americans heard about Russia last year mostly in connection with the Trump investigation, but here we remember 2018 for its crackdowns on civil liberties. Vladimir Putin largely has continued his yearslong campaign of censorship over Russian news and culture. But believe it or not, things don’t look hopeless at all.
In fact, recent events suggest 2019 could be a turning point for Russia toward perestroika, or preparation for reforms—and rap music is playing a leading role.
Rap quickly is becoming as influential in Russia as rock ’n’ roll was in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s. In those years, musicians like Boris Grebenshchikov and Viktor Tsoi—the Russian equivalents of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan—were dodging police, playing underground concerts, and urging the culture toward freedom.
Today the surge of interest in rap music is fueling a broad cultural debate. Profane and antiestablishment lyrics draw unfriendly attention from authorities. As Americans prepared for Thanksgiving, top Russian rapper Dmitry Kuznetsov, known as “Husky,” was arrested for defying a concert ban. Pressure grew from urban youth to release the popular icon, and a concert held to support him featuring Oxxxymiron—the Russian Eminem—and other musicians became one of the most important cultural events of the year.
Like their rock ’n’ roll forebears three decades ago, Russian rap fans managed to draw the reluctant president into the discussion. Surprisingly, Mr. Putin said rap should be free of political pressure and compared the genre to the waltz: Considered vulgar in the early 19th century, the dance became mainstream. And 25-year-old Husky was released.
With these moves Mr. Putin conceded that censorship often is overcome in the long run. But he failed to note that, as with the glasnost reforms to Soviet governance under Mikhail Gorbachev, a slight shift toward openness can open the door to broader change.
In September four underdog opposition candidates were elected to regional governorships. Their parties are sanctioned by the Kremlin, but the election results represent a willingness to vote for any candidate but the incumbents of the Putin regime. Even some of the winning candidates were surprised by the rapid shift in their favor.
High-profile intelligence scandals are also dominating Russian headlines, indicating a shift toward media freedom and political accountability. International newspapers have reported on how Russian intelligence allegedly bungled the March 2018 poisoning of former agent Sergei Skripal as well as a cyberattack the next month against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was investigating the Skripal case. Russians also learned of the Kremlin’s alleged failed coup in Montenegro and its botched attempt to disrupt negotiations between Greece and Macedonia. The revelation of scandals so demeaning to the security establishment indicates an erosion of state power of the sort that preceded the last perestroika.
A less conspicuous sign of change is the more than 50% rate of acquittals last year in criminal trials by jury in Moscow. Remarkably, Russians have begun to challenge the country’s law-enforcement system publicly, and many are winning—a triumph for ordinary people yearning for authentic rule of law.
Unlikely as it may sound, the foremost harbinger of perestroika is the situation on the Ukrainian front. The creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church was the most significant and least predictable event of the year. It would have been impossible a few years ago, but in December the senior Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople permitted the unification of a Ukrainian branch outside the authority of Moscow. The Russian church was unable to block the move, and the nation’s secular authorities didn’t even try.
This peaceable religious schism between Russia and Ukraine contrasts with their November naval clash in the Kerch Strait, where the Russian coast guard fired on and captured Ukrainian ships. While neither country’s motive in the encounter is fully clear, the episode may move the West to escalate sanctions, further weakening the Kremlin.
Whether or not a new perestroika is dawning, Russia’s leaders must outgrow power politics and recognize that force can’t secure their position either at home or abroad. They should begin to de-escalate the conflict with Ukraine through simple measures like an exchange of all prisoners of war, including the captured sailors. Moscow must also commit not to interfere with the Ukrainian presidential election in March.
More broadly, Russia must demilitarize its consciousness, recognizing that the logic of war is defective and archaic and that modern problems are more often solved through battles of ideas.
History proves that reforms in my country are possible against all odds. Given the political will, 2019 could be an extraordinary year for the Russian Federation—and it’s remarkable that regional elections, intelligence scandals, court verdicts, the Orthodox Church and music may together inspire the transformation. If rap lyrics are what it takes to sustain this awakening, let’s write them together.
Mr. Dobrynin is a former senator in Russia’s Federation Council, a vice president of the Russian Bar Association, and a senior partner of Pen & Paper, a law firm with offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg.