They forged a hard-as-nails image in places such as Stalingrad, Afghanistan and Chechnya, but today's Russian soldier is vulnerable to a new enemy. Figures leaked yesterday show that 80 Russian servicemen, including 24 officers, have taken their own lives this year.
It is estimated that between 20 and 50 per cent of all non-combat deaths in the Russian military are now suicides. "Today, suicide accounts for more than half of the total number of deaths in the armed forces," claimed a military source yesterday.
The disturbing figures follow an admission from Sergey Ivanov, the Defence Minister, earlier this year that 337 Russian soldiers died last year as a result of "crimes and accidents". He admitted that 35 per cent of those deaths were straight suicides and analysts say that the problem of suicide in the Russian army appears to be getting worse.
The large number of officers who are choosing to take their own lives is said to be of particular concern to the Russian Defence Ministry. The leaked figures for the first four months of this year will punch a gaping hole through President Vladimir Putin's oft-stated aim of reviving pride in the Russian army and of encouraging a militaristic, patriotic society.
They will also make it harder for the military recruiters to do their job; the wealthy and well-educated already do their best to bribe their way out of mandatory two-year military service. The authorities rely on television to make a soldier's life look glamorous. Hours of programmes glorifying the deeds of derring-do accomplished by muscle-bound, machine-gun-toting Russian special forces are regularly broadcast and there are plans to launch a new channel, Star, devoted exclusively to military matters.
Human rights groups say that the reality is not so glamorous. Russian soldiers, they claim, are being driven to suicide by a combination of brutal bullying, or "hazing", by older soldiers, by appalling living conditions and by malnutrition.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly spoken out against the harsh treatment of new recruits. "The state simply has no right, in sending hundreds of thousands of young people into the army every year, to treat their lives and health in such a light-hearted and often criminal way," said Alexander Petrov, the Moscow office's deputy director, at the release of a report into the matter. "The army is poor and the army is corrupt."
Mr Petrov claimed that it was taking its toll on the army's combat effectiveness. "Everyone who has been in Chechnya will be familiar with the picture - especially at the start of the first and second wars - of a first-year conscript at a checkpoint, bedraggled, with bruises and scabs and a hungry look in his eyes. Clearly, his thoughts are not on doing his duty," he said.
Stories about soldiers being savagely beaten by their older peers or officers are common fare in the Russian media. Earlier this year, Andrei Magarin, 22, a conscript paratrooper, shot himself in a park in Ulyanovsk, the town where Lenin was born. Investigators suspect he was bullied; he was about to be discharged from the army.
A few weeks ago, an officer, Colonel Andrey Shtakal, shot himself in the head in Yekaterinburg in front of his peers; an investigation has begun.
And in January, the harsh way in which conscripts are routinely treated by their superiors was highlighted when 50 draftees were abandoned by their officers on a series of icy airfields without proper clothing or shelter. One soldier died and scores were taken to hospital with pneumonia.
President Putin was furious. "If we continue to see such things in the future, how can we talk about strengthening of [the army[," he said.