Past tense

The Russian past tense has just one form, which makes it easier to to decline. However, it can be tricky to decide between using the imperfective and perfective aspect in the past tense.

How to form the past tense (for most verbs)

You construct the Russian past tense by taking the stem of the verb’s infinitive and adding 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. Because of this the Russian past tense is quite simple to decline.

For example, the past tense of the verb, “читать” – “to read,” declines like this:

  • он читал = he read
  • она читала = she read
  • оно читало = it read
  • они читали = they read

Reflexive Verbs in the Past Tense

Past tense reflexive verbs conjugate almost exactly the same, except for that they keep their reflexive endings. For example, the verb, “одевать” – “to dress,” declines like this:

  • он одевался = I dressed myself
  • она одевалась = she dressed myself
  • они одевались = they dressed themselves

    What aspect to use in the past tense

    More on verb aspect in Russian here.

    The most tricky thing about the past tense in Russian is knowing when to use the imperfective and perfective aspects. Sometimes, it may seem to an English speaker foreigner learning Russian that the past tense often doesn’t follow the standard aspect rules. Here are a number of examples of common confusions to help you understand when to use which aspect.

    Use perfective: repetition of idential actions

    This is especially common in phrases that contain the word “раз.”

    • Он несколько раз опоздал на урок. = Не was late several times for the lesson.
    • Она два раза перечитала его письмо. = She read his letter over twice.

    But use the imperfective when “раз” is not in use:

    • Он всегда опаздывал на урок. = Не was always late for the lesson.
    • Она часто перечитывала его письмо. = She often read his letter over.

    Use the appropriate aspect when there is a shade of difference in meaning between the aspect forms

    Sometimes there is a shade of difference in the meaning of the imperfective and perfective versions of a verb. Use the aspect according to the meaning you want to convey. Here are some examples where a verb’s aspect forms have slightly different meanings:

    бежать / побежать

    • бежать (imperf.) – to run, to flee; побежать (perf.) – to run
    • Они бежали с поля битвы. = They fled from the battlefield.

    видеть / увидеть 

    • видеть (imperf.) – to see; увидеть (perf.) – to see, to notice
    • Я видел его сегодня на улице. = I saw him today on the street.

    хотеть / захотеть 

    • хотеть (imperf.) – to wish, захотеть (perf.) – to feel like (suddenly)
    • Он хотел прийти в пять. = He wanted to come at five.

    слышать / услышать

    • слышать (imperf.) – to hear, to learn; услышать (perf.) – to hear
    • Я слышал, что они вернулись. = I heard that they have come back.

    Some imperfective verbs intrinsically have the idea of completion

    With some verbs these the distinction between the imperfective and perfective aspects is not so strong. These verbs’ perfective forms often have a prefix implying a duration of an action: “пo” for a short time; “про” for a long time.

    Examples include: (по-)гулять – to walk; (пo-)спать – to sleep; (пo-)сидеть – to sit; (пo-)стоять – to stand; (по-, про-)жить – to live; (подо-)ждать – to wait; (про-)служить – to serve, to be employed; (по-)работать – to work.

    • Сегодня мы гуляли в парке. = Today we walked in the park.
    • Сегодня мы прогуляли в парке. = Today we walked in the park for a long time.
    • Вы хорошо спали? = Did you sleep well?
    • Я поспал в самолете. = I slept on the plane.

    Use imperfective: general interpersonal communication

    Examples of such verbs include: (на-)писать – to write; (по-)звонить – to ring; отвечать (ответить) – to answer; говорить (сказать) – to say; (по-)жаловаться – to complain; встречать (встретить) – to meet; докладывать (доложить) – to report; (по-)просить – to ask (for)

    • Я ему писал насчёт этого. = I wrote him about it.
    • Мне кто-нибудь звонил? = Did anybody telephone me?
    • – Да, – отвечал он… = ‘Yes’, he replied (often in literature)
    • Он говорил, что он скоро уез­жает. = He said that he was leaving soon.
    • Он жаловался на меня дирек­тору. = He complained to the director about me.
    • Вы их встречали на вокзале? = Did you meet them at the station?
    • Сегодня Иванов докладывал. = Today Ivanov gave a report.
    • Он просил вас прийти утром. = He asked you to come in the morning.

    More official, precise, business-like communication is often better with the perfective aspect, though:

    • Я написал ему про это. = I have written him about it.
    • Почему вы не позвонили сразу? = Why didn’t you call right away?
    • Он не ответил на письмо. = He did not answer the letter.
    • Она прочитала письмо. = She read the letter (through).

    Use imperfective: phrases with negatives

    Generally, the imperfective aspect is more common in negative phrases. Using th imperfective implies an action never happend. Examples include:

    • Мы сегодня не гуляли. = We did not walk today.
    • Она не спала. = She did not sleep.
    • Он не работал в субботу. = He did not work on Saturday.
    • Я долго не ждал. = I did not wait for long.
    • Почему вы не подождали меня? = Why didn’t you wait for me?
    • Я не брал ваших денег. = I did not take your money.

    That being said, there are many situations, where the perfective can be used. The perfective generally implies an action failed to come to pass, despite its intentionality:

    • Он ничего не купил. = He did not buy anything.
    • Я ему ничего не говорил. = I didn’t tell him anything. (could imply “it so happened”)
    • Я ему ничего не сказал. = I did not tell him anything. (could imply “intentionally”)
    • Я их не приглашал, а они пришли. = I didn’t invite them but they came.
    • Я их не пригласил. = I did not invite them (intentionally).
    • Нет, он не приходил сегодня. = No, he didn’t come today (he didn’t visit us, didn’t show up).
    • Она ему позвонила, но он не пришёл. = She telephoned him but he didn’t come.

      Irregular past tense verb formation

      Verbs in “-ти,” “-сть,” or “-зть:”

      Have an “л” in the past masculine if the present stem ends in “д” or “т”

      • вести (to lead): я веду → вёл, вела, вело, вели
      • мести (to sweep): я мету → мёл, мела, мело, мели
      • класть (to put): я кладу → клал, клала, клало, клали

      Don’t have an “л” in the past masculine if the present doesn’t end in “д” or “т”

      • нести (to carry): я несу → нёс, несла, несло, несли
      • лезть (to climb): я лезу → лез, лезла, лезло, лезли

      The past tense of verbs ending “-чь” ends in “-г” or “-к” in the masculine, depending on the stem of the present:

      • печь (to bake): я пеку → пёк, пекла, пекло, пекли
      • мочь (to be able to): я могу → мог, могла, могло, могли

      Verbs ending in “-ереть” in the infinitive drop “-еть” in the past:

      • тереть (to rub): тёр, тёрла, тёрло, тёрли
      • умереть (to die): умер, умерла, умерло, умерли

      Verbs ending “-нуть”

      Generally, verbs ending in “-нуть,” in the perfective infinitive only, keep “-ну” in the past:

      • кричать / крикнуть (to cry): крикнул, -ла, -ло,-ли
      • толкать / толкнуть (to push): толкнул, -ла, -ло, -ли
      There are many exceptions, though:
      • воздвигать / воздвигнуть (to set up, to erect): воздвиг, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • достигать / достигнуть (to attain, to reach): достиг, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • исчезать / исчезнуть (to disappear): исчез, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • отвергать / отвергнуть (to reject): отверг, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • привыкать / привыкнуть (to get used to): привык, -ла, ло, -ли
      • проникать / проникнуть (to penetrate): проник, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • умолкать / умолкнуть (to become silent): умолк, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • отвергать / отвергнуть (to reject): отверг, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • привыкать / привыкнуть (to get used to): привык, -ла, ло, -ли
      • проникать / проникнуть (to penetrate): проник, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • умолкать / умолкнуть (to become silent): умолк, -ла, -ло, -ли

      Verbs which end in “-нуть” both in the imperfective and perfective drop the “-ну” in the past tense. For example:

      • мокнуть / промокнуть (to get wet):
        • мокнуть: мок, -ла, -ло, -ли
        • промокнуть: промок, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • мёрзнуть / замёрзнуть (to freeze):
        • мёрзнуть: мёрз, -ла, -ло, -ли
        • замёрзнуть: замёрз, -ла, -ло, -ли
      Again, there are exceptions:
      • гнуть / согнуть (to bend):
        • гнуть: гнул, -ла, -ло, -ли
        • согнуть: согнул, -ла, -ло,-ли
      • тянуть / вытянуть: (to pull)
        • тянуть: тянул, -ла, -ло, -ли
        • вытянуть: вытянул, -ла, -ло, -ли

      In the following verbs the stem of the past has a -б

      • грести (to row): грёб, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • скрести (to scrape, to scrub): скрёб, -ла, -ло, -ли
      • ушибить (to bruise, to hurt): ушиб,-ла,-ло,-ли
      • ошибиться (to make a mistake): ошибся, -лась, -лось, -лись

      The past tense of расти (to grow): рос, росла, росло, росли.

      The past tense of идти (to go on foot): шёл, шла, шло, шли.

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