Past Tense Verbs

Learn about the past tense verbs in Russian

When we form Past Tense verbs in Russian, it is important to know the grammatical gender of the subject, as it specifies the ending of the verb. If the subject is a pronoun, especially ТЫ ("you" singular) or Я (I), the gender of the verb depends on the real gender of a person you are speaking about.

How do we form it?

To form the Past Tense, you should should remove the ending -ть of the Infinitive, add the suffix -л to the stem of the verb, and then the endings of verbs according to the gender and the number:

  • Masculine:
  • Feminine: -ла
  • Neuter: -ло
  • Plural: -ли

For example, the verb РАБОТАТЬ (to work) in the Past Tense will have the following forms:

РАБОТАТЬ Он работал
Она работала
Оно работало
Они работали

You must remember, that unlike in the Present Tense, the verb TO BE (was/were) (быть) is used in the Past Tense in sentences with no action verb. It also has four different forms for masculine, feminine, neuter, and plural forms.

For example:

Он был до́ма вчера́. (He was at home yesterday)

Она́ была́ в теа́тре. (She was in the theatre)

Оно́ (окно́) бы́ло откры́то. (It (the window) was open)

Они́ бы́ли за́няты. (They were busy)

Pay attention to the stress of the verb (the underlined vowel is stressed), as in the form of the feminine gender the final syllable is stressed, while in the other forms the stress is on the first one. Besides, in negative sentences the stress moves to the word не except in the feminine gender.

For example:

Он не́ был до́ма вчера́. (He wasn’t at home yesterday)

Она́ не была́ в теа́тре. (She wasn’t in the theatre)

Оно́ (окно́) не́ было откры́то. (It (the window) wasn’t open)

Они́ не́ были за́няты. (They weren’t busy)

In the past tense of the verb, we use the same vowel as in the infinitive form before -ть.

Смотреть - смотрел

Бросить - бросил

Плавать - плавал

Some verbs that have the infinitive ending in -чь, -ти, and -нуть, form the Past Tense in a little bit of a different way. The suffix is not used to form the past tense if used with the object of the masculine gender. Although, it is used for the same verbs if they are used with the singular feminine and neutral, as well as plural subjects.

For example:

ПЕЧЬ (to bake): он пёк*, она пекла, оно пекло, они пекли

НЕСТИ (to carry): он нёс*, она несла, оно несло, они несли

СОХНУТЬ (to dry): он сох, она сохла, оно сохло, они сохли

МОЧЬ (can): он мог, она могла, оно могло, они могли

*Pay attention, that the letter E in the stem of some verbs is replaced with Ё in the masculine form in the Past Tense.

To be sure if a verb is in -чь, -ти, and/or -нуть, you should consult a dictionary. Though, there are some exceptions among verbs in -ть as well:

ЕСТЬ (to eat): он ел, она ела, оно ело, они ели

ЗАПЕРЕТЬ (to lock): он запер, она заперла, оно заперло, они заперли

СЕСТЬ (to sit down): он сел, она села, оно село, они сели

Reflexive Verbs in the Past Tense:

Reflexive verbs change in almost exactly the same way as the examples above, except that they still maintain the reflexive endings -сь/-ся depending on the preceding letter.

Ending -сь is used after vowels, -ся after consonants:

ОДЕВАТЬСЯ (to dress): он одевался, она одевалась, оно одевалось, они одевались

ЗАНИМАТЬСЯ (to study): он занимался, она занималась, оно занималось, они занимались

УМЫВАТЬСЯ (to wash one’s face): он умывался, она умывалась, оно умывалось, они умывались

When do we use it?

The Russian past tense is used to talk about actions and situations which took place at any point in the past and corresponds to English in Past Simple, Past Continuous, Past Perfect, Past Perfect Continuous, Present Perfect.

He watched this film yesterday. (Он смотрел/посмотрел этот фильм вчера)

He was watching this film the whole evening yesterday. (Он смотрел этот фильм вчера весь вечер)

He had watched the film before he went for a walk. (Он посмотрел/cмотрел фильм перед тем, как пошёл гулять)

He had been watching the film for an hour when I called him. (Он смотрел фильм уже час, когда я позвонил ему)

He has watched this film and doesn't want to go to the cinema to watch it with me. (Он посмотрел/cмотрел этот фильм и не хочет идти в кинотеатр, чтобы посмотреть/смотреть его со мной)

A very important thing in forming the Past Tense is the choice of the aspect. There is only one Past Tense in Russian, but you first have to know which Aspect to use. The Past Tense can be expressed in both Perfective (посмотрел) and Imperfective (смотрел) aspects. Notice, that the English Tenses do not correspond to the Russian aspect. The choice of the Aspect depends on the context.