Lesson 12: Introduction to the past tense in Russian

While English has several different past tense forms, Russian only has one past tense form which is actually quite simple to conjugate. The most complicated of the past tense in Russian is deciding when to use the imperfective vs. perfective aspect. In this twelfth lesson, we’ll go through how to form the past tense and how to use the past tense in the imperfective and perfective aspects.

For more information go here for the past tense page in our Russian grammar resources.

How to form the past tense

Forming the past tense in Russian is pretty easy. For verbs ending in -ть (most verbs), simply remove the infinitive ending and add the suffixes -л, -ла, -ло, and -ли. These suffixes correspond to masculine, feminine, neuter, and plural subjects. The Russian past tense does not consider the person (i.e. 1st, 2nd, or 3rd) of the subject.

For verbs whose infinitive ends in -ти or -чь the past tense is a bit more tricky, as you have to remember the past tense stem. For these verbs the masculine base ending -л is not used, but the other endings, -ла, -ло, and -ли, are used. Past tense stems for verbs ending in -ти are hard to predict. Meanwhile, past tense stems for verbs ending in -чь often end in -г or -к.

Verbs ending in -ть

делать = to do, make (imperf.)

  • он делал = he did
  • она делала = she did
  • оно делало = it did
  • они делали = they did

сказать = to say (perf.)

  • он сказал = he said
  • она сказала = she said
  • оно сказало = it said
  • они сказали = they said

Verbs ending in -ти

нести = to carry (imperf.)

  • он нёс = he carried
  • она несла = she carried
  • оно несло = it carried
  • они несли = they carried

класть = to put (imperf.)

  • он клал = he put
  • она клала = she put
  • оно клало = it put
  • они клали = they put

Verbs ending in -чь

мочь = to be able to (imperf.)

  • он мог = he could
  • она могла = she could
  • оно могло = it could
  • они могли = they could

печь = to bake (imperf.)

  • он пёк = he baked
  • она пекла = she baked
  • оно пекло = it baked
  • они пекли = they baked

Uses of the past tense: imperfective vs. perfective aspect

Imperfective aspect

Using the imperfective aspect in the past tense emphasizes the process of an action, not its result.

Action in the past that was in process or unfinished

  • Вчера я гулял по Петербургу и видел много достопримечательностей. = Yesterday I walked around St. Petersburg and saw many sights.

Repeated actions taking place indefinitely

  • Летом мы часто купались в бассейне. = During the summer we often went swimming in the swimming pool.

Expressions of duration

  • Я смотрел телевизор весь день. = I watched TV all day

No action attempted or failure to complete action

  • Я не звонил тебе вчера, потому что забыл. = I didn’t call you yesterday because I forgot.

States of being

  • Мне было холодно в Канаде. = I was cold in Canada.

Perfective aspect

Using the perfective aspect in the past tense emphasizes result of an action.

One-time completed actions

  • Мы сделали это задание. = We have completed this task.

Repetition of identical actions

  • Я два раза прочитал «Войну и мир». = I have read War and Peace twice.

Sequences of successive actions

  • Я перешел улицу и вошел в магазин. = I crossed the street and entered the shop.

Action attempted with failure to complete

  • Они не поняли, о чем я говорю. = They didn’t understand what I was saying.
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