Russian Past Tense
In Russian you will quite often wish to tell a story, or talk about something that has happened in the past. To do this we need to learn about the Russian past tense. Once you have completed this lesson you will be able to combine your knowledge of the case system to form simple Russian sentences and tell stories.
Tenses in Russian differ considerably from English. In English there are quite a number of different past tenses, but in Russian there is simply one. Instead Russian uses the concept of aspects to indicate whether an action is completed or not. The same principal also applies in the future tense. Although this concept differs from English, it is conceptually quite easy. Let's have a look at the past tense now....
Forming Verbs in Past Tense.
In Russian the past tense is formed differently than present tense. You will recall that when we conjugated verbs in the present tense it depended on which person the subject was. (ie 1st, 2nd or 3rd person). In the past tense we look at the gender of the subject. You simply need to take the stem of the verb and add one of the following endings.
Let's try this with the verb “Знать” (to know).
If you look at the following short sentences you will see that the verb relates to the gender of the subject.
Он знал - He knew
Она знала - She knew
Оно знало - It knew
Они знали - They knew
Мы знали - We knew
Я знал - I knew (male speaking)
Я знала - I knew (female speaking)
Ты знал - You knew (speaking to a male)
Ты знала - You knew (speaking to a female)
Владимир знал - Vladimir knew
Дима знал - Dima knew
Елена знала - Elena knew
Ольга знала - Olga knew
Собака знала - The dog knew
You will notice that the verb endings match with the different forms of the pronoun “Он”. This should help you remember how to form the verbs. When using pronouns such as Я, Ты, and Вы it will depend on the gender of the actual person concerned.
Aspects in the past
In Russian there is a concept know as aspect, and it becomes important in the past and future tenses. Aspect indicate whether an action was successfully completed or not. Some tenses in English can indicate this, but it is not so exact as it is in Russian. There are two aspects in Russian, consequently each verb has two possible forms. The perfective and the imperfective aspect. Let's start by looking at what each aspect means.
Imperfective Aspect: Incomplete, ongoing, habitual, reversed or repeated actions.
Perfective Aspect: A single action that has been successfully completed.
The Imperfective Aspect.
The imperfective aspect is easy to use because all present tense verbs are imperfective. By definition something in the present tense is happening now, and is not complete, so there is no perfective in the present tense. Simply conjugate them as discussed above.
The following phrases imply the action was unfinished.
Я работал - I was working
Я шёл - I was going (by foot)
Она хочет купить книгу. - She wants to buy a book.
The following sentences are habitual or are repeated.
Я работал каждый день - I worked everyday.
Я бегаю в лесу каждый день. - I run in the forest every day.
When expressing an action was undertaken for a length of time, use the imperfective also.
Я работал два часа - I worked for 2 hours.
If you express the state of something you also use the imperfective
Я был дома - I was home.
The Perfective Aspect
Using the perfective aspect always implies the action was completed successfully and is not habitual in nature. There is no rule on how to form the perfective aspect. You just need to learn the perfective form of each verb. Sometimes the perfective is a different verb all together, but most commonly it is a prefixed form of the imperfective. (often По-). Here are some examples of the perfective form of some common verbs.
Imperfective / Perfective
Бегать / Побежать (run)
Видеть / Увидеть (see)
Говорить / Сказать (talk/say)
Жить / Прожить (live)
Понимать / Понять (understand)
Работать / Поработать (work)
Сидеть / Посидеть (sit)
Читать / Прочитать (read)
Now lets look at some examples.
Вчера мы прочитали иинтересную статью. - Yesterday we read an interesting article.
Я купил кофе - I bought a coffee
Я пошла домой - I went home.
Саша съел обед за пять минут. - Sasha ate his lunch in 5 minuets.
Она спросила учителя. - She asked the teacher
Aspects and the negative.
The use of the perfective in the negative implies the action failed. Whereas the imperfective implies the action never happened.
Она не ела бананы. - She did not eat bananas.
Я не жила в Англии. - I did not live in England.
Мы не смотрели фильм вчера. - We did not watch the movie yesterday.
Он не хотел видеть меня. - He did not want to see me.
Я не позвонила - I failed to phone. (but I was expected to).
Я не понял, что он сказал. - I did not understand what he said.
Questions and Aspects.When you ask a question use the perfective if you specifically wish to to know if the action was completed successfully. If you are still unsure which to use, try converting you question to a statement and see which aspect fits.
Что ты делал вчера?. - What were you doing yesterday?
Они бегали здесь вчера?. - Did they run here yesterday?
Ты бегал вчера утром?. - Did you run yesterday morning?
Ты понял этот фильм? - Did you understand this movie?
Ты сказал ему об этом? - Did you tell him about it?
You will remember that in the present tense the word “is” is simply omitted in Russian. This is not the case in the past tense. These examples come from the word “Быть” (to be).
Я был - I was (man speaking)
Я была - I was (woman speaking)
Он был - He was
Она была - She was
Оно было - It was
Они были - They were
Note the unsual stress patterns when used in the negative. The stress moves to the word 'не', except in the feminine.
Я не был - I was not (man speaking).
Я не была - I was not (woman speaking).
Оно не было - It was not.
Они не были - They were not.
Here are some more examples of sentences in the past tense. Read through these to help you familiarise yourself with the past tense, and perhaps learn some new Russian words in the process.
Он читал три часа. - He read for three hours.
Я окончила школу, когда мне было 16 лет - I finished school when I was 16 years old.
В школе я начала учить английский. - At school I started learning English.
Я была во многих странах. - I’ve been to many countries.
Я уже посетила Швецию - I’ve already visited Sweden.
Мы сняли дачу на три месяца. - We rented a summer house for three months.
The past tense in Russian is really quite easy to form. Using the past tense will allow you to tell stories in Russian, which is useful for explaining a little about yourself to people you meet.
Where it becomes a little confusing at first is the introduction of aspects. Don't worry too much about this at first. The more you hear and read Russian the more familiar you will become with it. Often there are very common sentence structures such as “he said” that use the perfective and you will become familiar with this. Just experiment and expose yourself to as much Russian speech and text as you can and you will begin to learn in a natural manner. Be sure also to speak up and make mistakes. If you are not in Russia, try writing a few paragraphs about yourself in the past tense and post them to our forums for other users to correct.