At this point, I don’t need to tell you that Russian grammar is complicated. Verbs are no exception, but fortunately conjugating in the past tense is rather simple.
Whereas some languages have compound tenses (had done, have done, have been doing, etc.), Russian only has two options for past tense verbs.
Keep reading to learn how to work with these forms!
Forming the past tense is easy. You just take the stem of the verb and add one of the four potential suffixes according to number and gender.
Gender and Number
I/you/he knew (male)
I/you/she knew (feminine)
Он смотрел телевизор
On smotrel televisor
He was watching TV
Она увидела свою маму
Ona uvidela svoyu mamu
She saw her mom
Бельё пахло так хорошо
Bel'yo pakhlo tak khorosho
The linen smelled so good
Дети гуляли по парку
Deti gulyali po parku
The children walked around the park
When conjugating in the past tense, start with the stem that comes from the infinitive because the present tense forms often change.
The following verb endings drop the л/L ending in masculine singular forms. The other forms follow the normal past tense rules.
Он испек хлеб
On ispek khleb
He baked bread
Он принёс подарок на вечеринку
On prinyos podarok na vecherinku
He brought a gift to the party
If you've ever used a Russian dictionary, you'll have noticed that there are two Russian verbs listed for every English verb. This is because Russian verbs have a characteristic called aspect that tells us how often an action occurs and its status (completed or incomplete). There are two options for aspect in Russian: imperfective or perfective.
Sometimes imperfective/perfective verb pairs will look very similar and sometimes, they won't look alike at all. Check out the following verbs (the imperfective verb is the first one in the pair):
Let's look at the two aspects together and then separately.
The imperfective sets the scene and tells us what was happening before an interruption, while the perfective represents the interruption itself. (Imagine the words "when all of a sudden" preceding the perfective.)
Солнце светило КОГДА ВДРУГ молния ударила в дерево.
Solntse svetilo KOGDA VDRUG molniya udarila v derevo.
The sun was shining WHEN ALL OF A SUDDEN lightning struck a tree.
The verb in the first part of the sentence is in the imperfective form because it tells us what was happening before something else (the perfective verb) happened and changed the situation.
Now let's break it down.
The imperfective is used for prolonged actions and also habitual ones.
Example 1: What were you doing?
Я делала домашнюю работу.
Ya delala domashnyuyu rabotu.
I was doing my homework.
There is no indication that you've finished the homework, so use the imperfective.
Example 2: What did you do all day yesterday?
Я смотрела старые фильмы.
Ya smotrela stariye fil'miy.
I was watching old films.
Use the imperfective here to show that this process took place over a long period of time (all day).
Example 3: What did you (like to) do when you were little?
Япоказывал друзьям свою коллекцию комиксов.
Ya pokazival druzyam svoyu kollektsiyu komiksov.
I would/used to show (my) friends my comic book collection.
The imperfective here marks a habitual, past action.
Example 4: What were you doing when...?
Мы говорили с бабушкой когда ты позвонила.
Miy govorili s babushkoi kogda tiy pozvonila.
We were talking to Grandma when you called.
Here we use the imperfective to show an ongoing action that was interrupted by a perfective action.
Example 5: What did she used to buy?
Она раньше покупала белый хлеб, а сейчас она покупает чёрный хлеб.
Ona ran'she pokupala beliy khleb, a seychas pokupaet chorniy khleb.
She used to buy white bread, but now she buys black bread.
Once again, we use the imperfective to show a past habitual action.
Use the perfective to denote a successfully completed action whose result is known.
Я сделал всю домашнюю работу вчера.
Ya sdelal vsyu domashnyuyu rabotu.
I did all my homework yesterday.
Мы посмотрели этот фильм вместе.
Miy posmotreli etot fil'm vmecte.
We watched this film together.
Он показал маме хорошие оценки.
On pokazal mame khoroshie otsenki.
He showed his mother his good grades.
Она сказала, что она довольна.
Ona skazala, shto ona dovol'na.
She said that she was happy.
Они купили новую одежду.
Oni kupili novuyu odezhdu,
They bought new clothes.
These are all one-time, successfully completed actions.
Russian speakers will often use the questions Что делал/сделал (Shto delal/sdelal) to explain aspect, but that can be confusing to English-speaking students.
Think of it this way:
The imperfective is like a movie that's playing (or in progress).
The perfective is like a photograph, or a one-time snapshot of a single moment.
Use the perfective when you know that an action has been successfully completed. If you can't be sure that the outcome was successful or if you don't know the outcome, go with the imperfective. When in doubt, try the imperfective.
Олег сдавал экзамен.
Oleg sdaval ekzamen.
Oleg took the exam.
We don't know whether Oleg passed or failed the exam, so use the imperfective.
Настя сдала экзамен.
Nastya sdala ekzamen.
Nastya took (and passed) the exam.
We know that Nastya passed the exam, so use the perfective.
Formula 1: Negation particle + imperfective verb = no attempt to complete an action
Ex: Я не писала. Ya ne pisala. I didn't write (and didn't try to).
Formula 2: Negation particle + perfective verb = failure to complete an action.
Я не написала. Ya ne napisala. I didn't write (but was supposed to).
Here are a few suggestions for ways to really master the past tense.
Pick a personal experience and write it out using a dictionary. Then read it to a native speaker (this can be a teacher, language partner, or friend) who can correct any mistakes.
Practice your story with as many people as possible until telling it becomes second nature. After that, pick another story and start the process again!
Watching Movies and TV
Find an English-language show you like and watch it with Russian subtitles (this is easy to do with streaming services like Netflix). Pick a few scenes where characters are speaking in the past tense and copy down the subtitles.
Analyze the phrases you wrote down to see when to use imperfective vs. perfective. Then, try coming up with similar sentences.
Even though your teachers might not love Wikipedia, it's useful for language learning because it has millions of articles on various topics. Pick a subject you're interested in and try reading it in Russian.
Since it's an encyclopedia, there will be plenty of uses of past tense describing previous events. For an extra challenge, only use a dictionary as a last resort. If you need help, refer back to the English language version.
Here are some online resources that I've found particularly helpful when practicing the past tense.
This website has very simple explanations for many Russian grammar topics. The page on the past tense is especially helpful and I especially like how they explain aspects.
I've been using alphadictionary.com since I started learning Russian five years ago. There are hundreds of charts for every grammar topic, but the biggest draw is definitely the exercises.
Simply type your guess into the box. If you're correct, it'll tell you so. If you're wrong, it'll give you a hint.
I normally use this site to study its list of Top 500 Russian Verbs, however its grammar lessons are short and to the point.
The Russificate Blog is run by a Russian teacher and features a ton of articles and exercises in Russian, as well as some podcasts. They have some great stuff on the past tense and verbs in general.
As you can see, forming the past tense is pretty easy; it's just getting the hang of when to use the imperfective vs. perfective that takes some time. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments.
If you use the suggestions and resources I've laid out, using the correct verbal aspect will soon be a breeze!