When we have conversations about our lives and experiences, we usually talk about things that happened in the past. Thus, if you want to have meaningful conversations in Russian, you need to learn how to build up sentences in the past tense. In this post, we show you how to form the past tense in Russian.
Of course, if you want to learn Russian fast but you’re not quite ready to move to Russia to immerse yourself in the language and culture, learn Russian online with one of our professional teachers.
The Past Tense in Russian
When we talk about actions or situations that happened in the past, we use the past tense. In English, the past tense can be formed in four ways:
The past simple (He worked.)
The past perfect (He had worked.)
The past continuous (He was working.)
The past perfect continuous (He had been working.)
Here’s the good news: Unlike many European languages, Russian has only one past tense form. All the sentences above can be translated into Russian as “Он работал” (On rabotal).
How to Form the Past Tense in Russian
So, how do we form the past tense? Let’s take the verb “говорить” (govorit’ – to talk) as an example. “Говорить” (govorit’) is the infinitive form. To form the past tense, we change the ending “–ть” into the suffix “–л”:
говорить (govorit’) – говорил (govoril)
You do the same thing with all verbs to create the past tense:
читать (chitat’) – читал (chital) – to read
плакать (plakat’) – плакал (plakal) – to cry
сомневаться (somnevat’sya) – сомневался (somnevalsya) – to doubt
Russian verbs change their endings depending on the gender of the subject they refer to.
Он читал книгу. (Ya chital.) – He read a book.
Она читала газету. (Ona chitala.) – She read a newspaper.
Оно читало мои мысли. (Ono chitalo moi mysli.) – It read my thoughts.
Они читали объявление. (Oni chitali ob’yavlenie.) – They read an announcement.
As you can see, if the pronoun is masculine, there is no ending. If it’s feminine, the ending is “–а” (а), and when it’s neutral, the ending is “–о” (o). For the plural, the ending is –и (i).
If the verb is reflexive, when the action is directed to the subject, for example, “I wash myself,” you also change “–ть” to “–л,” but keep the reflexive ending “–ся.”
Улыбаться (ulybat’sya) – улыбался (ulybalsya) – to smile
Смеяться (smeyat’sya) – смеялся (smeyalsya) – to laugh
Exceptions to the Rule
There are few exceptions to the general rule.
Verbs that end in “–чь,” “–ти,” and “–нуть” don’t take the suffix “–л” in their past form if they are used with the masculine subject. Take the verb “беречь” (berech’) as an example. It can be translated as “to keep” or “to take care of” something.
Мальчик берёг свою игрушку. (Mal’chik beryog svoiu igrushku.) – The boy took care of his toy.
When the noun is feminine or neutral, the suffix “–л” appears again.
Девочка берегла свои вещи. (Devochka beregla svoi veschi.) – The girl took care of her things.
The other exception is the verb “идти” (idti – to go). It has its own form in the past tense.
идти на работу (idti na rabotu) – to go to work
Он шёл на работу. (On shyol na rabotu.) – He was going to work.
Она шла в школу. (Ona shla v shkolu.) – She was going to school.
Study Russian Grammar
After learning the general rules, you will be able to form the past tense in Russian. Practice the basics, and then learn the exceptions. Russian grammar is much easier when you study it with a native speaker. Order an online Russian lesson to make learning easier.