“If he beats you, he loves you”

Russian tattoo artist Zhenya Zahar offers free tattoos to domestic violence survivors. Two years into her project, Zahar has covered the scars of around 200 women in her studio in Ufa, 1300 km east from Moscow. For many survivors the tattoo is part of their healing process. It’s an act of defiance and a way to take ownership of their painful past. Marija, Nadja, Nadezhda, and Wiktorija have survived brutal attacks by former partners. They share their stories to let other women know: they are not alone. In Russia, 12.000 women a year die at the hands of a loved one. (tap image for caption)


Marija's first tattoo was destroyed by scars from self-harm and knife attacks by her boy-friend.

The hair-straightener Marija's boyfriend used to burn her arm.

Marija, 24: "People, who condone domestic violence have probably never been in this situation otherwise they'd understand what a big problem it is to be hit and scarred by the person you love. There is a lot of shame. Women who’ve suffered domestic violence have scars on their body and their soul. They feel guilty and ashamed to go outside. So, unless you have been in this situation you can’t judge anyone. You cannot know.

Men who beat women must be punished. Whatever they do, they must get back in return. But they must be punished by society, not by the law or the government. I don’t trust these organs. They must be punished by the community because the law won’t do it.

I never went to the police myself. It didn’t even occur to me. I felt pity for my boyfriend. I didn’t want him to to go to prison. The police probably wouldn’t have come anyway. If you have good and strong friends, they can take care of you. You can ask them to punish your boyfriend. But if you are alone and quite weak, then you have a problem."

A dent in the fridge door caused by a flying stool during one of the arguments.

Nadezda, 34:

"At the beginning our relationship he was a good man. We were so in love, I had butterflies in my belly. Unfortunately, things started to change quite quickly. Ilshat was addicted to drugs and when he needed some, he became aggressive. One day he became so angry, he took a knife and stabbed me. I have a deep scar on my belly. I left him for a while but we got back together. Then he burnt my leg with a cigarette. I was crying, begging him to stop taking drugs. He wanted me to shut up, something went wrong in his head. He blamed everything that went wrong in his life on me. He always begged me for forgiveness.

After he burnt my leg, I left him for good. I was six months pregnant with my daughter Camilla. I knew it would be difficult alone but I had to leave. I grew up in very peaceful environment and when he started to hit me, I was totally stressed, became depressed and started to cut myself. So, when I fell pregnant, I knew I won’t put up with this. Most girls in Russia probably suffer like this but stay in their relationship for the children. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.

I would advice any woman in this situation to RUN! There are no helpless situations in life, you must value yourself."

A firefly tattoo covers the burn marks caused by a cigarette Ilshat put out on Nadzeda's leg during an argument.

In the center of the butterfly is the deep scar from the stabbing. The rest of the tattoo covers smaller cuts and scars.

The knife Ilshat used to stab Nadezda with. They argued about money.

The center of the butterfly covers a stab wound on Wiktorija's chest.

Wiktorija, 29: " I used to stay up most of the night, afraid he might break in. I slept with a baseball bat by my side for protection. I tried many things to put Denis off. I cut my hair, put weight on, stopped washing and shaving. I wanted to look like a man, so he wouldn’t like me anymore. Nothing worked."

I called the police various times. They never helped me. I had to rely on myself and put protective measure in place to feel save. I think, the law needs to change but whatever the law, the police has its own. That’s just the way it is in Russia.

I want women to understand that, once a man has shown his true nature, believe it! Never believe his tears, words of regret or presents. If you notice any signs of aggressive behaviour, walk away! I didn't and paid the price. I wanted him to be good. I wanted a happy family and a child. But it was all in my head, none of it was true."

A baseball bat for protection.

Wiktorija with long hair and Denis, who died in December 2016.

Denis spent hours watching Wiktorijas' flat shouting threats and insults. Sometimes he climbed up the building to break in through the window. Although Denis is dead, Wiktorija still finds herself checking, that he 's not standing there.

Nastja, 34: “I was 17 years old, when I met my ex-boyfriend. He was 23. We were together for two years and lived in a small village outside Ufa. I was totally in love with him and he felt the power he had over me. He used to say: “ I can do whatever I want with you. You will always love me.” I didn’t feel I mattered. When he started to be violent, I wanted to escape but he controlled my every move.

Once, when he was drunk and crazy, he beat me so hard that I fell unconscious. When I woke up, he was sitting on top of me, holding me down. I felt this pain and realised that he was cutting me with a knife. He had done this before but his time he nearly killed me, because I couldn’t fight back or hide from him. He only ever cut me on my left arm, so it looked like I had been trying to commit suicide.

I never called the police. The village was so small. I didn’t want other people to know about my situation. Here in Russia many people think: “If he beats you, he loves you.” It’s a normal thing to happen, so I dealt with it by myself. "

Eventually Nastja managed to escaped. She took a train to Ufa and disappeared into the anonymity of the city. Her ex-boyfriend tried to track her down but couldn’t find her.

The note reads:
Run away from this place of pain. Don't let anybody harm you. Don’t let anybody humiliate you. With patience and strength you will get over it!!! Greetings from Nastja

In 2017 the Russian government passed a law decriminalising domestic violence with the aim to strengthen family cohesion. Non - life threatening beatings are now a minor offence punishable with a minimum fine of £80.00.

If you want to support Zhenya's project, please contact her on Facebook.