Past Tense in Russian

In this lesson, you will learn everything you need to know about the past tense in Russian, which is one of the easiest and most important subjects for every Russian learner.

I will divide the lesson into three parts:

  1. When to use the past tense in Russian
  2. How to form the past tense in Russian
  3. How to practice the past tense

The above titles have links. If there is any specific subject you would like to learn first, you can click on it and go straight to that part of the lesson.

When to use the Past Tense in Russian

The past tense in Russian is very straightforward and much easier than in other languages.

English speakers, for example, can describe actions that happened in the past in many different ways:

  • I studied English.
  • I was studying English.
  • I used to study English.
  • I have studied English.
  • I had studied English.

In Russian, however, we describe actions that happened in the past in only one way. So, all the above sentences can be translated into Russian as:

  • Я учил английский.

In other words, when you speak Russian, you don’t have to think about when or how something happened in the past in order to choose the right tense, because there is only one past tense.

Let’s take a look at another example. Here are some sentences in English:

  • I lived in that city.
  • I was living in that city.
  • I used to live in that city.
  • I have lived in that city.
  • I had lived in that city.

All these sentences can be translated into Russian as:

  • Я жил в том городе.

Now, let’s learn how to form the past tense.

How to form the past tense in Russian

Russian verbs can be divided into two categories: non-reflexive and reflexive.

Most non-reflexive verbs in the infinitive form end in ТЬ. The infinitive is the base form of the verb and it’s the form that you usually see in the dictionary.

For example:

  • спать (to sleep)
  • учить (to study)

Most reflexive verbs in the infinitive form end in ТЬСЯ. For example:

  • просыпаться (to wake up)
  • смеяться (to laugh)

If you don’t know the difference between reflexive and non-reflexive verbs, you can check out our complete lesson about this subject clicking here.

First, let’s learn how to form the past tense of verbs that end in ТЬ, that is non-reflexive verbs.

Non-reflexive verbs in the past tense

To form the past tense of verbs that end in ТЬ, you have to replace the ending ТЬ with one of the following endings:

  • Л
  • ЛА
  • ЛО
  • ЛИ

The new ending depends on the gender of the subject of the sentence and on whether the subject is singular or plural.

If you are not familiar with the concept of gender in the Russian language, you can check out our complete lesson about this subject clicking here.

Here is a picture of the rules you need to memorise:

All the endings that non-reflexive verbs take in the past tense in Russian.

Let’s go over them in more detail.

Masculine subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is masculine, we use the ending Л. For example:

  • Он работал целый день.
  • (He worked the whole day)
  • Мальчик учил вчера английский.
  • (The boy studied English yesterday)
  • Джон ходил в супермаркет.
  • (John went to the supermarket)
Feminine subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is feminine, we use the ending ЛА. For example:

  • Она помыла машину.
  • (She washed the car)
  • Девушка смотрела фильм.
  • (The girl watched a movie)
  • Мэри много путешествовала.
  • (Mary has travelled a lot)
Neuter subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is neuter, we use the ending ЛО. For example:

  • Солнце светило.
  • (The sun was shining)
  • Время прошло быстро.
  • (The time went by fast)
  • Блюдо было хорошим.
  • (The dish was good)
Plural subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is plural (regardless of the gender), we use the ending ЛИ. For example:

  • Мы ездили во Францию.
  • (We travelled to France)
  • Они приготовили вкусный ужин.
  • (They cooked a delicious dinner)
  • Мужчины играли в футбол.
  • (The men were playing football)

Reflexive verbs in the past tense

To form the past tense of verbs that end in ТЬСЯ, you need to replace the ending ТЬСЯ with one of the following endings:

  • ЛСЯ
  • ЛАСЬ
  • ЛОСЬ
  • ЛИСЬ

As with non-reflexive verbs, the new ending depends on the gender of the subject of the sentence and on whether the subject is singular or plural.

Here is a picture of the rules you need to memorise:

All the endings that reflexive verbs take in the past tense in Russian.

Let’s go over these rules one by one.

Masculine subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is masculine, we use the ending ЛСЯ. For example:

  • Он проснулся поздно.
  • (He woke up late)
  • Мальчик учился в школе.
  • (The boy studied at school)
  • Майк занимался спортом.
  • (Mike did sport)
Feminine subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is feminine, we use the ending ЛАСЬ. For example:

  • Она готовилась к уроку.
  • (She was preparing for the lesson)
  • Женщина проснулась в 7 утра.
  • (The woman woke up at 7 am)
  • Дженни занималась теннисом.
  • (Jenny played tennis)
Neuter subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is neuter, we use the ending ЛОСЬ. For example:

  • Молоко испортилось.
  • (The milk got spoilt)
  • Лето началось.
  • (Summer has begun)
  • Всё закончилось хорошо.
  • (Everything ended well)
Plural subjects:

When the subject of the sentence is plural, we use the ending ЛИСЬ, regardless of the gender. For example:

  • Они встретились.
  • (They met)
  • Дети проснулись.
  • (The kids woke up)
  • Мы учились в школе.
  • (We were studying at school)

And those are all the rules that you need in order to form the past tense in Russian.

Now, note that some verbs have irregular past forms. They don’t follow any of the patterns that were explained above.

Here are the most common of them:

идти (to go)

  • Он шёл домой.
  • (He was going home)
  • Она шла в магазин.
  • (She was going to the store)
  • Мы шли по улице.
  • (We were going along the street)

прийти (to come)

  • Он пришёл домой.
  • (He came home)
  • Она пришла в офис.
  • (She came to the office)
  • Они пришли поздно.
  • (They came late)

уйти (to leave)

  • Он уже ушёл.
  • (He has already left)
  • Она ушла с работы.
  • (She left her job)
  • Гости уже ушли.
  • (The guests have already left)

найти (to find)

  • Он нашёл работу.
  • (He found a job)
  • Она нашла ключи.
  • (She found the keys)
  • Мы не нашли телефон.
  • (We didn't find the phone)

принести (to bring)

  • Он принёс нам кофе.
  • (He brought us coffee)
  • Мама принесла еду.
  • (Mom brought food)
  • Вы принесли книги?
  • (Did you bring the books?)

вырасти (to grow up)

  • Он вырос в деревне.
  • (He grew up in a village)
  • Она выросла в городе.
  • (She grew up in the city)
  • Дерево выросло.
  • (The tree has grown)
  • Дети выросли быстро.
  • (The children grew up quickly)

How to practice the past tense

There are several ways in which you can practice the past tense in Russian. Some of them will help you develop your writing and speaking skills, while others will help you improve your reading and listening skills.

Speaking and writing in the past tense

To practice your speaking and writing skills, you can start by describing what you did yesterday, last week, last weekend, etc.

Try to start with very simple sentences. Once you feel more comfortable forming and using the past tense, you can start making longer and more complex sentences.

Here are some example sentences:

  • Я работал вчера.
  • (I worked yesterday)
  • Я учил русский вчера.
  • (I studied Russian yesterday)
  • Я не обедал вчера.
  • (I didn’t have lunch yesterday)

If your goal is to practice your speaking skills, make sure to say these sentences out loud multiple times. Repeat them until you can pronounce all the sentences naturally.

If your goal is to practice your writing skills, write the sentences multiple times until you can remember how to spell all the words of the sentence. I recommend that you write them on a piece of paper rather than on the computer.

Once you are comfortable making individual sentences in the past tense, try and describe a whole situation that happened in the past. Describe it as if you were telling it to a friend.

For example:

  • В прошлые выходные я проснулся рано.
  • (I woke up early last weekend)
  • Я ел кашу на завтрак.
  • (I ate porridge for breakfast)
  • Потом я читал книгу.
  • (Then I read a book)
  • Потом я пошёл гулять.
  • (Then I went for a walk)
  • В 12 часов я обедал.
  • (At 12 o’clock I had lunch)

Make sure to describe the same situation many times, until you can do it naturally.

This will also help you to improve your vocabulary. If you don’t know a specific word or a word form when making your sentences, you can look it up in our dictionary.

And if this is a word that you would like to memorise, you can make a flashcard for it and review it later.

Listening and reading in the past tense

It will be very easy for you to practice your listening and reading skills since we have complete texts with audio focused on the past tense here on our platform.

We post new texts on a regular basis. Here are some of the texts with audio focused on the past tense:

  • Going to the bank
  • Choosing a pet
  • In the countryside
  • Renting an apartment

The texts have two audio versions: slow and fast.

If the text has any word that you don’t know yet, with a single click on that word, you can see its meaning and examples in our dictionary. And if you want, you can also turn the word into a flashcard directly from the text page.

It’s a good idea to read the text and listen to the audio several times until you can understand all the details. After you know all the words and have no difficulty understanding the fast audio version, you can choose another text to study.

And that’s it. Now you know when to use the past tense in Russian, how to form it and how to practice it.