When you learn Russian, you normally start out talking about the here and now, so the Russian past tense isn't your first concern.
In fact, one of the first things you’ll pick up is how to conjugate a Russian verb. But what about what when we talk about the past?
The Russian past tense is its own distinct piece of grammar that you’ll need if you want to talk about anything that’s already happened. What’s interesting is that it works quite differently from the past tense of languages like English, French, or Spanish.
So to help you understand the Russian past tense, this article will cover:
- How the past tense works in Russian
- How to form the Russian past tense
- The irregular past tense of идти
- The basics of Russian aspect
- The two Russian Past tenses
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Introducing The Russian Past Tense
While Russian grammar can be tricky at times, the past tense is one topic where English is actually more complicated than Russian. Consider a few of the different past tenses that English uses.
- I saw the zebra
- You did see the zebra
- I was seeing the zebra
- I had seen the zebra
Conversely, when it comes to the Russian past tense, you won’t have to learn any auxiliary verbs (have), conjugations for person (was/were), or irregular past participles (seen).
Instead, you only really have four verb endings to learn. And that’s (mostly) the same for all past tenses in Russian.
Since Russian has a much simpler system of forming past tense verbs, the many forms you see in English are expressed either by adding particle words and prefixes or by context.
In the example below, there are small changes but the structure stays the same.
- Я увидел зебру (I saw the zebra/have seen the zebra)
- Я и увидел зебру (I did see the zebra)
How To Form The Russian Past Tense
Unlike conjugating Russian verbs in the present tense, the past tense only uses 4 endings. These four endings work similarly to Russian adjectives because the past tense explicitly refers to the gender of the subject. And just like Russian adjectives, all plural nouns take one ending.
Let’s take an example with the verb сказать (to say).
The endings are:
|Masc||-л||Иван Сказал||Ivan said|
|Fem||-ла||Надежда сказала||Nadezhda said|
|Plur||-ли||Мои друзья сказали||my friends said|
If you know a verb's infinitive form, forming the Russian past tense is quite straightforward. For verbs with infinitives ending in -ть or -сть, you simply remove the final part and add the past tense endings.
This also makes the past tense easy to spot when you’re reading – and you should be reading stories in order to master Russian or any other language!
Verbs With Irregularities
There are several verbs which have less predictable endings for the masculine singular form. With these verbs, the masculine singular ending lacks the -л ending and will instead end in a consonant. Many verbs with infinitives ending in – ти fall into this category.
Occasionally these verbs also have a different vowel in the infinitive and the past tense form. The other forms will have the same endings as more ‘regular’ verbs.
The group also includes a lot of verbs ending in -зть -чь and -сть
|Мочь (to be able)||мог (he could)||могла (she could)||могло (it could)||могли (they could)|
You can combine any of these forms with pronouns as long as they match the gender.
- Я могла найти здание (I could find the building)
- Ты рос в Москве (you grew up in Moscow)
- Мы несли багаж (we were carrying the bags)
- Они упали (they fell)
How To Form Reflexive Past Tense Verbs
Since Russian has so many reflexive verbs, you may need to put them in the past tense as well. Thankfully, their formation is simple and straightforward.
As with other verbs, the reflexive endings go at the very end of a verb. So just add -сь or -ся to the end of the past tense.
- Они одели детей (they dressed the children)
- Они оделись (they got dressed (reflexive))
- Я вернулся (I came back (masc subject))
- Я вернулась (I came back (fem subject))
- Лето вернулось (summer came back (neu subject))
- Цветы вернулись (the flowers came back (plural subject))
Russian Aspect – The Completeness Of Verbs
Now that you understand how to identify and form the past tense of a verb, it’s time to talk about Russian verb aspect.
In the Russian language, the completeness of an action is essential information. In English you can say that “I read a book last night” and it’s not clear if you read it to the end or not.
On the flip side, stating the completeness of a Russian verb is obligatory.
In other words, if you say that you read something, you have to specify if you finished reading it or not.
Let’s have an example with the word “read.”
- Наташа читала книгу (Natasha read a book)
- Наташа прочитала книгу (Natasha read a book)
Both of these sentences could be translated into English as “Natasha read a book.” However, they express different end results.
- Читала means “she read without finishing”
- Прочитала means “she read completely” or “read all the way through”
Perfective And Imperfective Verb Pairs
Every verb in Russian is either complete/perfective or incomplete/imperfective. This is usually referred to as aspect (вид). Often the imperfective form will translate as “were doing” or “was doing.”
|Иван ел суп (Ivan was eating soup)||Иван съел суп (Ivan ate soup (to the end))|
|Анна гововила громко (Anna was talking loudly)||Анна сказала громко (Anna spoke loudly)|
|Они видели комет (They were seeing the comet)||Увидели комет (They saw the comet)|
The majority of verbs come in pairs known as imperfective and perfective.
When when you look up видеть (to see) in a dictionary, you’ll most likely see both its несовершенный вид (imperfective aspect) and its совершенный вид (perfective aspect) видеть/увидеть.
So while most dictionaries will define читать and прочитать as “read,” it can sometimes help to think of these as two separate words.
Just remember that the most important thing to consider is whether or not an action is ongoing.
- Мы спали (we were sleeping) ongoing action
- Мы поспали (we fell asleep) single action
Learning the Imperfective and Perfective Forms
There is no set formula for learning the different forms of verbs, but there are few guidelines.
The perfective form of a verb may be the same as the imperfective, but with a prefix like с- по- про- у-
Of course, Russian is Russian, so there are a few irregularities as well. For example, some verb pairs look nothing alike at all. One of the most common pairs is говорить/сказать (to speak/to say).
- Анна гововила громко (Anna was talking loudly)
- Анна сказала громко (Anna spoke loudly)
As you continue with Russian, you’ll quickly pick up on the different patterns for imperfective and perfective verbs. Additionally, a verb's meaning will help as well.
The Irregular Past With идти
While the ending of past tense verbs are easy to form. The verb идти and prefixed forms of this verb (e.g. дойти, найти, пойти) have an irregular past tense you’ll have to learn separately.
Thankfully these are all based on the same form, so it’s quite simple.
- Я шла по лесу (I walked through the forest)
- Шёл дождь (It rained)
- Наташа нашла свой ключ (Natasha found her key)
- Они разошлись (they dispersed)
Using The Russian Past Tense For Yourself
Russian grammar has a lot of complexities, but when it comes to the past tense, you only have to learn four endings and you're ready to talk about what you did last week, last year, and last night.
And with a bit of practice, the two aspects of Russian verbs will start to be clear. Just remember to consider whether an action is complete or not and you’ll be set to strike up a conversation!
If you want to make using the Russian past tense come to you like second nature, there’s a solution. When you try the StoryLearning® method and immerse yourself in Russian books and Russian short stories, you master the past tense in no time.
So enjoy talking and as always Удача из удач (best of luck)!