Verb tenses will be one of the most complex topics you come across while studying Russian. We’ll start with the basics here, but if you want a more complete overview of Russian verb tenses, learn Russian grammar with a teacher.
How Many Verb Tenses Are There in Russian?
There are three verb tenses in the Russian language: present, past, and future.
The present tense is used to describe situations happening right now that are not yet over. Unlike in English, the Russian language has just one form of the present tense. Thus, phrases like “I do” and “I’m doing” are translated into Russian the same way: “Я делаю” (Ya delaiu).
Я иду на работу. (Ya idu na rabotu.)
I go to work.
Я читаю книгу. (Ya chitaiu knigu.)
I’m reading a book.
The past tense is used to describe actions that took place in the past. While there is only one form of the past tense in Russian, it’s not that simple. Russian verbs in the past tense have the grammatical category of aspect that expresses how an action, denoted by a verb, extends over time.
Aspects describe different qualities of an action—the process of doing something and the result of an action—so Russian verbs have two aspects: perfective and imperfective.
If an action happened just once and its result is somehow important to the speaker, the perfective aspect of the verb is used.
Утром я читал газету. (Utrom ya chital gazetu.)
I was reading a newspaper in the morning.
If the speaker wants to emphasize the whole process of doing something, the imperfective aspect of the verb is used.
Утром я прочитал газету. (Utrom ya prochital gazetu.)
I’ve read a newspaper in the morning.
You can see from the examples above that to change an aspect of the verb we need different prefixes and endings. Endings, the last one or two letters in words, show characteristics such as the grammatical form and number of words.
The future tense is used when you refer to an action that will happen sometime in the future. Because Russian verbs have two aspects, there are two forms of the future tense: simple and compound. Compare the examples.
Я буду рисовать картину. (Ya budu risovat’ kartinu.)
I am going to paint a piece of art. (future simple)
Я нарисую картину. (Ya narisyiu kartinu.)
I will paint a piece of art. (future compound)
To build up a compound form, you need the auxiliary verb “буду” (budu) and an infinitive form of the notional verb, the main verb that has a lexical meaning. Here is an example of the compound future tense:
Я буду работать в магазине. (Ya budu rabotat’ v magazine.)
I will work at the shop.
The simple form of the future tense requires the use of certain prefixes and endings, like in the sentence below.
Я узнаю, кто это сделал. (Ya uznaiu, kto eto sdelal.)
I will figure out who did this.
The difference between these two forms is, again, the quality of an action. You need to realize what’s important: the result or the process. When we want to point out the result of the future action, we use the perfective aspect; the imperfective form of the verb is used to stress the process.
Verb Tenses in Different Languages
Verb tenses are divided into the present, past, and future in many languages, including English, German, and French. In English alone, there are twelve verb tenses! And, yes, if you’re not a native English speaker, you must learn them. In some languages, like Chinese, the grammatical category of tense is absent. These languages use adverbs and other lexical means instead.
You probably think this is too much to remember. Maybe, but challenges exist to be overcome. If you need help coping with grammatical issues, study Russian online with a tutor.