In the summer of 2016, women’s rights activists in Russia celebrated as the country passed its first law directly targeting domestic abuse. For a country where, according to estimates, one woman dies every 40 minutes at the hands of an intimate partner, it was a long overdue development.

Less than a year later, it looks like that progress has been undone.

Earlier this month, Russia’s parliament voted by an overwhelming majority – 380 to 3 – in favour of an amendment that decriminalizes domestic abuse. This week, President Vladimir Putin signed it into law. What’s behind this controversial development?

The road to decriminalization

To understand what’s just happened, you need to go back to the summer of 2016, when Russian lawmakers decriminalized battery – the least violent form of assault – except in cases where the victim was a spouse, partner or child.

The exemption recognized the very different nature of domestic abuse compared to other forms of violence, and accepted that it therefore required a higher level of protection (along with other crimes like racially motivated violence).

But facing mounting pressure from conservative groups and the Orthodox Church, policy-makers decided to remove that exemption.

Now, first-time offenders who beat their partners or children will no longer face criminal charges. Instead, as long as the beating does not cause serious harm, and as long as it happens no more than once a year, abusers will receive an administrative penalty – either a small fine (the equivalent of around $500), community service or up to 15 days of detention. The change also means victims themselves will be responsible for gathering together evidence and bringing a case forward.

Supporters of the move argue that the state has no business interfering in domestic issues. “The family is a delicate environment where people should sort things out themselves,” Maria Mamikonyan of the All-Russian Parents Resistance movement told journalists.

Her sentiments were shared by many Russian religious and political leaders, including one of Putin’s top aides, Vyacheslav Volodin: “It’s important to us that nobody interferes with families, that society appreciates these issues, and that the state creates conditions for building strong families,” he explained.

‘If he beats you, it means that he loves you’

Critics don’t see it that way. For them, the decision sends out the wrong message, particularly given Russia’s long history of cultural acceptance for domestic violence. As an old Russian saying goes, “If he beats you, it means that he loves you.”

“The message is: Let’s not punish a person who beats up his family at home, because he has the right to do that,” Maria Mokhova, the director of a Moscow-based centre for victims of sexual abuse, told Reuters. “This law calls for the exoneration of tyrants in the home.”

Others are concerned that this latest move could aggravate an already critical situation.

“Women don’t often go to the police or the courts regarding their abusive husbands. Now there will be even fewer such cases, and the number of murders will increase,” Yury Sinelshchikov of Russia’s Communist party warned.

In a country where 40% of families are affected by domestic violence, and almost 20% of people are said to believe it is sometimes justified, that could have grave consequences.