The authorities should be focusing on how to protect vulnerable women and children, but instead they are giving up scant legal protection

One of the first things I learned as a psychology student in Moscow was about a famous experiment involving rats in a labyrinth: the fastest finders of the way out were the rats which were penalized by ache for choosing a wrong direction. But when they were put into new labyrinths, and not punished, they did not move. The lesson they had learned was not to take any chances.

Like these rats, people motivated by fear of pain learn fast: to do anything to avoid more or worse pain; to distrust others they fear may hurt them; to avoid risks or changes. Sometimes they decide to stick by a familiar aggressor, in case other aggressors turn out to be worse. At other times they decide to cause pain to others, in order to try to fend off the threat to themselves: almost every abuser has also been abused.

For years the criminal law on domestic violence in Russia has not worked not only because the police refuse to take victims grievances seriously, but also because victims often retract grievances. Sometimes victims cannot comprehend how incorrect it is that they have been beats: they feel they deserve it, because something is wrong with them, that they somehow provoked it. They experience feelings of shame.

According to government statistics, 49, 579 crimes involving violence in the family were committed in Russia in 2015, with the vast majority of victims women and an unknown number of offences unreported. It is high time Russian legislators looked at this issue and focused on how to give protection to those who are vulnerable. Instead, Russian MPs this week backed a law reducing the penalties for those convicted of inflicting violence on family members, decriminalising some offences.

These changes are simply the revelation of the obvious: the authorities cannot protect the powerless and will not bother to break the vicious circle of abuse within the home. Abused children will continue to grow up to become abusers or victims themselves.

Working as a psychotherapist in Moscow, I have watched how women who stay with perpetrators of domestic violence have often been abused in childhood, suffer from low self-esteem and secretly know that they deserve to be punished. Meanwhile their abusers feel important only when exercising power over a weaker person. Domestic abuse can be a kind of delayed retaliation for the helplessness experienced by abusers in childhoods filled with shame and pain.

Breaking these cycles takes resources and painstaking run. Lawmakers need to support such efforts, and to lead social progress as, for example, they did earlier this month in France, when beating children was outlawed. Regrettably, the current tendency of lawmaking in Russia is the opposite: it supports the archaic thinking of the majority of the population.

I do not think this new law will induce the situation dramatically worse in Russia the situation of victims is so bad already, this would be difficult. But it will not make things any better. Indeed, the amendments are already being interpreted by adversaries and supporters alike as devoting official permission for violence.

First offences that do not result in serious injuries will now be punished by a penalty. Since such payments, of up to 30,000 rubles( 400 ), will obviously be taken out of household budgets, in themselves these penalties could become a disincentive to complain.

Making victims responsible for meeting evidence is equally misconceived. Who will do this if the main victims is a child? A frightened or an abusive mother? Neighbours who called the police when they heard holler?

Crucially, merely a second offence will now be considered a crime. The official reason for this is to create parity with the style that violence between strangers outside the home been addressed. And this is the biggest blunder. Victims of domestic violence cases, and especially children, are uniquely vulnerable because they lack the opportunity to escape. Their abusers are not strangers, and are usually the people who should protect and care for them. As a consequence, the psychological and long-term consequences of the same physical traumata are far more severe.

In the experimentation I analyse all those years ago, by the way, the rats allowed to take different directions with no painful outcomes were lively and creative. They explored all the new labyrinths and saw new ways out.

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