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The Only Guide to Russian Tenses You’ll Ever Need

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Let me guess. You’re at a stage where you already know how to introduce yourself and talk about your family, and now you’re ready to get down to real business. Hesitating between the verb conjugation and noun cases, your choice fell on Russian tenses. Fair enough. You need a way to tell the world about your past adventures, current feelings, and ambitious plans. Stick with me, and I’ll show you how it’s done.

We’ll go step by step, starting with the Russian verb basics like the infinitive, person, number, and verbal aspects before seamlessly switching to the tenses: present, past, and future. Russian tenses are not a piece of cake, but we’re going to have one bite at a time anyway. Shall we?

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Russian Table of Contents
  1. Basic Concepts
  2. Present
  3. Past
  4. Future
  5. What’s Next?

1. Basic Concepts

No need to sugarcoat it: Russian verb conjugation might seem intimidating. However, you can breathe a sigh of relief: there are only three tenses in Russian—present, past, and future. Before we dive into the tenses, though, let’s cover some basic info on verbs to help you better understand the logic behind the tense formation.

A- The Infinitive Form and the Verb Groups

When you look up a verb in a dictionary, you find its infinitive form. In the world of conjugation, the infinitive will be your guide and best buddy. This is because verb tenses are formed by modifying the infinitive (usually changing its ending), and sometimes the infinitive is helpful in identifying the conjugation group of the verb.

    “Conjugation group, you said?”

Yes, there are two conjugation groups in Russian, each with its own set of endings. We didn’t waste much time thinking of how to name them, so they’re simply “Group 1” and “Group 2.” In most cases, you can predict which group a verb belongs to by looking at the ending of its infinitive.

Russian verbs: First and second conjugation groups
Group 1

Endings -еть, -ать, -ять, -уть, -ти
(-yet’, -at’, -yat’, -ut’, -ti)

Examples:
Богатеть (bogatet’) – “to get richer”
Играть (igrat’) – “to play”
Гулять (gulyat’) – “to stroll”
Гнуть (gnut’) – “to bend”
Ползти (polzti) – “to crawl”
Group 2

Most verbs ending in -ить (-it’)

Examples: 
Говорить (govorit’) – “to speak”Учить (uchit’) – “to learn” / “to teach”

11 exceptions, which are verbs that seemingly belong to Group 1:
  • Дышать (dyshat’) – “to breathe”
  • Держать (derzhat’) – “to hold”
  • Гнать (gnat’) – “to drive fast”
  • Ненавидеть (nenavidet’) – “to hate”
  • Слышать (slyshat’) – “to hear”
  • Вертеть (vertet’) – “to spin something”
  • Смотреть (smotret’) – “to look”
  • Видеть (videt’) – “to see”
  • Обидеть (obidet’) – “to offend”
  • Терпеть (terpet’) – “to tolerate”
  • Зависеть (zaviset’) – “to depend”

Pro tips

1. To start, just keep in mind that most verbs ending in -ить belong to Group 2, and the rest belong to Group 1. To level up, try to remember the 11 exceptions as well!

2. Many infinitives end with -ть, but sometimes -ться can pop up. It’s a typical ending for reflexive verbs like одеваться (odevat’sya), meaning “to dress.” Just ignore the -ся part for now.

B- Person and Number

The ending a verb takes depends on the person and number as well. Here’s a list of possible ‘person + number’ combinations represented by personal pronouns. Keep in mind that any pronoun can be replaced by a noun (for instance, “my parents” instead of “they”).

Pronoun typeRussianEnglish
1st person singularя (ya)I
2nd person singularты (ty)you (casual)
3rd person singularон, она, оно (on, ona, ono)he, she, it
1st person pluralмы (my)we
2nd person pluralвы (vy)you (plural) / you (formal)
3rd person pluralони (oni)they

Examples: 

  • я читаю (ya chitayu) – “I read”
  • мы читаем (my chitayem) – “we read”
  • студенты читают (studenty chitayut) – “the students read”

➤ Check out our list of the Most Useful Pronouns if you would also like to hear how these pronouns are pronounced.

A Couple Sitting on the Sofa Reading Together

oни читают (oni chitayut) – “they read”

C- Aspect

Apparently, the Russian tense system seemed a bit too simple, so we decided to implement the concept of aspect. 

There are two verb aspects in Russian: imperfective and perfective

The imperfective aspect represents an ongoing or repeating action.

The perfective aspect usually indicates a completed action.

Can you think of something similar in English? (Take a second to think.) Right, a similar concept is used in English with the contrast of continuous/simple and perfect tenses.

Compare:

  • я ел (ya yel) – “I was eating”
  • я поел (ya poyel) – “I’ve eaten”
  • я буду читать (ya budu chitat’) – “I will be reading”
  • я прочитаю (ya prochitayu) – “I’ll finish reading”

Try to guess which forms are perfective and which ones are imperfective. How did you arrive at your answer?

❗️ Aspects are only relevant when we talk about the past and the future. We don’t use aspects in the present.

You must’ve been attentive enough to notice that each perfective verb had a prefix added. This is, indeed, the usual way of making a perfective form. Suffixes are used as well, but they’re not as common.

D- The Part that Changes

Again, you can try to guess a verb’s type by the ending of its infinitive form. This would work in most cases. Then, you’d usually just remove the -ть / -ти part of the infinitive to make the infinitive stem and add a corresponding ending to it. Easy-peasy.

However, some verb forms require the present tense stem. You can find it by cutting off the ending of the verb’s third person plural form (“they”). 

Yes, you didn’t misread it: To find the stem, you need a verb that is already conjugated. That’s the surefire way to get your conjugations right. This stem is used to create a variety of verb forms: present, future, imperative, and some others. Sometimes, the infinitive stem and the present tense stem end up being the same, but don’t let your guard down!

Context Conjugator will support you during the early stages of verb conjugation. But learning to see the conjugation patterns on your own will make your life easier in the long run.

The formula

The present tense stem [for the present and the simple future]
Regular verbs

In third-person plural, remove the last two letters and add the new ending:

“To play”: играть [infinitive] > играют [third plural] > игра [stem]
“To learn”: учить [infinitive] > учат [third plural] > уч [stem]

Reflexive verbs

In third-person plural, remove the reflexive part -ся and two more letters. Add the new ending, place -ся or -сь (for “I” and “you” formal) back:

“To dress”: одеваться [infinitive] > одеваются [third plural] > одева [stem] + ся / -сь
я одеваюсь – “I dress”
ты одеваешься – “you dress”
The infinitive stem [for the past]
Regular verbs

Remove the last two letters from the infinitive (usually -ть or -ти):

“To play”: играть [infinitive] > игра [stem]
“To learn”: учить [infinitive] > учи [stem]
Reflexive verbs

Remove the reflexive part -ся and two more letters from the infinitive (usually -ть or -ти), then put -ся (for “I” and “he”) or -сь back:

“To dress”: одеваться [infinitive] > одева[stem] + -ся / -сь
“To study”: учиться [infinitive] > учи [stem] + -ся / -сь

он учился – “he studied”
они одевались – “they dressed”

A Man Contemplating a Decision with a Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other

Играть или учиться? (Igrat’ ili uchit’sya?)
“To play or to study?”

2. Present

A- When?

We use the present tense for:

  1. General facts

    Ночью на небе появляются звёзды. — “At night, the stars appear in the sky.”
    (Noch’yu na nebe poyavlyayutsya zvyozdy.)
  1. Habitual actions

    Каждое утро я пью кофе. — “Every morning I drink coffee.”
    (Kazhdoye utro ya p’yu kofe.)
  1. The present state of affairs

    Я живу с родителями. — “I live with my parents.”
    (Ya zhivu s roditelyami.)
  1. An action that’s happening right now

    Мы смотрим фильм. — “We’re watching a movie.”
    (My smotrim fil’m.)
  1. An action that’s been taking place for a period of time

    Мы гуляем уже три часа. — “We’ve been walking for three hours already.”
    (My gulyayem uzhe tri chasa.)
  1. Timetables and future arrangements

    Поезд отправляется в 7 утра. — “The train departs at 7 a.m.”
    (Poyezd otpravlyayetsya v 7 utra.)

    Завтра мы идём в музей. — “We’re going to the museum tomorrow.”
    (Zavtra my idyom v muzey.)

As you can see, the Russian present tense is like the English present simple, continuous, and perfect continuous wrapped up into one tense. Yes, 3-in-1! 

B- How?

Finally, we’ve made it to the present tense endings that we use for each conjugation group. Remember that, ideally, you should work with the present tense stem (see “Basic Concepts”). Sometimes the two types of stems coincide, but if you’re only relying on the infinitive stem, the conjugation results might be unpredictable.

Group 1Group 2
играть (igrat’) – “to play”

я играю* (ya igrayu) – “I play”
ты играешь (ty igrayesh’) – “you play” [informal]
он играет (on igrayet) – “he plays”
мы играем (my igrayem) – “we play”
вы играете (vy igrayete) – “you play” [formal, pl.]
они играют* (oni igrayut) – “they play”
учить (uchit’) – “to learn,” “to teach”

я учу* (ya uchu) – “I learn”
ты учишь (ty uchish’) – “you learn” [informal]
она учит (ona uchit) – “she learns”
мы учим (my uchim) – “we learn”
вы учите (vy uchite) – “you learn” [formal, pl.]
они учат* (oni uchat) – “they learn”
* Use the endings -ю, -ют after vowels
or the soft sign (я думаю, они читают).

Use -у, -ут after consonants (я расту).
* Use the endings or -ат after the letters Ж, Ш, Ч, Щ, and all hard consonants.

Use and -ят after soft consonants and vowels.

Look at the endings once again and try to see the similarities between the two groups. If you manage to figure out the patterns on your own, the rules will stick better. It’s also an extremely satisfying experience to solve a problem by yourself, so give it a try.

Anyway, you were right if you said that the only difference is that from the first group changes into for the second group, and -у/-ю is replaced with -а/-я.

A Man Drinking Coffee Early in the Morning

Fill in the blank:
Каждое утро я _______ . (Kazhdoye utro ya ________.)
“Every morning I ___.”

3. Past

A- When?

We use the past tense in Russian to describe:

  1. An action that happened regularly in the past

    Она каждый день занималась спортом. — “She used to do sports every day.”
    (Ona kazhdyy den’ zanimalas’ sportom.)
  1. An action that began and ended in the past (the result is not important)

    Вчера я гулял в парке. — “Yesterday I walked in a park.”
    (Vchera ya gulyal v parke.)
  1. An action that was occurring for a period of time in the past

    Я ждал тебя весь день. — “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
    (Ya zhdal tebya ves’ den’.)
  1. An action that began and ended in the past (the result is important, and the completeness of the action is emphasized)

    Я сходил в магазин. — “I’ve been to the shop.” [you can see that my hands are full of bags]
    (Ya skhodil v magazin.)

    Когда мы пришли, он уже ушёл. — “When we arrived, he had already left.”
    (Kogda my prishli, on uzhe ushel.)

As you can see, the Russian past tense is quite different from the English one. It’s a mixture of the English present perfect, past perfect, past continuous, past simple, and some other tenses. No need to draw parallels between the two languages here. It’s better to try grasping the main idea behind it: the action happened and was left in the past, even if this past was there just a second ago.

Also, if you remember what we covered about aspects, you can see that the first three instances refer to the imperfective past and the last one to the perfective.

➤ Confused about the aspects? Don’t hesitate to backtrack to the “Basic Concepts” section.

B- How?

To form Russian verbs in the past tense, we use the infinitive stem that we were talking about in the “Basic Concepts” section.

You need to drop the infinitive ending -ть and add the following endings instead:

    → masculine: (-l)
    → feminine: -ла (-la)
    → neuter: -ло (-lo)
    → plural: -ли (-li)

❗️ The past is the only tense where gender plays a role.

Groups 1 and 2 [same endings]
играть (igrat’) – “to play”

я играл(a) (ya igral-a) – “I played” [m/f]
ты играл(а) (ty igral-a) – “you played” [inf.] [m/f]
он играл (on igral) – “he played”
она играла (ona igrala) – “she played”
оно играло (ono igralo) – “it played”
мы играли (my igrali) – “we played”
вы играли (vy igrali) – “you played” [form., pl.]
они играли (oni igrali) – “they played”
учить (uchit’) – “to learn,” “to teach”

я учил(а) (ya uchil-a) – “I learned” [m/f]
ты учил(а) (ty uchil-a) – “you learned” [inf.] [m/f]
он учил (on uchil) – “he learned”
она учила (ona uchila) – “she learned”
оно учило (ono uchilo) – “it learned”
мы учили (my uchili) – “we learned”
вы учили (vy uchili) – “you learned” [form., pl.]
они учили (oni uchili) – “they learned”

C- Additional notes

1. If the infinitive ending is -чь, the ending changes to or . If there’s one or more е in the word, the last one will become ё. However, it only concerns the masculine form.

печь (pech’) – “to bake” → пёк (pyok) – “was baking” [m] (пекла [f], пекло [n], пекли [pl])

2. If the infinitive ending is -ти, all you need to do is drop the ending. To create the feminine, neuter, and plural forms, just add -ла, -ло, or -ли respectively. 

ползти (polzti) – “to crawl” → полз (polz) – “crawled” [m] (ползла [f], ползло [n], ползли [pl])

3. Many words with the -ти ending change their stems while forming the past, so try to memorize them.

идти (idti) – “to go” → шёл (shyol) – “went” [m] (шла [f], шло [n], шли [pl])

4.  A perfective form usually turns up with a prefix, but the endings normally stay the same. What changes, however, is the meaning.

Compare: imperfective > perfective

  • есть (yest’) – “to eat”
  • я ел (ya yel) – “I was eating” [masculine]
    я поел (ya poyel) – “I’ve eaten”

    я ела (ya yela) – “I was eating” [feminine]
    я поела (ya poyela) – “I’ve eaten”

  • он ел (on yel) – “he was eating”
    он поел (on poyel) – “he’s eaten”
  • она ела (ona yela) – “she was eating”
    она поела (ona poyela) – “she’s eaten”

  • оно ело (ono yelo) – “it was eating”
    оно поело (ono poyelo) – “it has eaten”

5. The verb “to be” deserves special attention. We mostly use it in the past and the future with adjectives and adverbs. It also serves as a means of making compound future forms. We’ll look deeper into them in the next chapter (“Future”).

The verb Быть (Byt’) – To be
я был(а) (ya byl-a) – “I was”
ты был(а) (ty byl-a) – “you were” [inf.] [m/f]
он был (on byl) – “he was”
она была (ona byla) – “she was”
оно было (ono bylo) – “it was”
мы были (my byli) – “we were”
вы были (vy byli) – “you were” [form., pl.]
они были (oni byli) – “they were”
Examples:
  • Там было холодно. — “It was cold out there.”
    (Tam bylo kholodno.)
  • Я был дома. — “I was home.”
    (Ya byl doma.)
  • Это было для нас хорошим уроком. — “It was a good lesson for us.”
    (Eto bylo dlya nas khoroshim urokom.)

A Woman in Winter Clothes Shivering in the Snow

How do you say “It was cold out there” in Russian?

4. Future

A- When?

We use the future tense in Russian for:

  1. An action that will be ongoing or repeated at some point in the future [imperfective aspect]

    Завтра утром я буду на работе. — “Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at work.”
    (Zavtra utrom ya budu na rabote.)

    Мы будем каждый день ходить в ресторан. — “We will go to a restaurant every day.”
    (My budem kazhdyy den’ khodit’ v restoran.)
  1. An action that will be finished at some point in the future [perfective aspect]

    К 7 вечера мы уже закончим. — “We’ll be done by 7 p.m.”
    (K semi verchera my uzhe zakonchim.)

B- How?

There are two ways to form the future tense in Russian.

Way 1: Compound future [for the imperfective aspect]

An appropriate form of the verb быть (byt’), meaning “to be,” + the infinitive 

Groups 1 and 2 (identical formation)
1. играть (igrat’) – “to play”

я буду играть (ya budu igrat’) – “I will play”
ты будешь играть (ty budesh’ igrat’) – “you will play” [inf.]
он будет играть (on budet igrat’) – “he will play”
мы будем играть (my budem igrat’) – “we will play”
вы будете играть (vy budete igrat’) – “you will play” [form., pl.]
они будут играть (oni budut igrat’) – “they will play”
2. учить (uchit’) – “to learn,” “to teach”

я буду учить (ya budu uchit’) – “I will learn”
ты будешь учить (ty budesh’ uchit’) – “you will learn” [inf.]
он будет учить (on budet uchit’) – “he will learn”
мы будем учить (my budem uchit’) – “we will learn”
вы будете учить (vy budete uchit’) – “you will learn” [form., pl.]
они будут учить (oni budut uchit’) – “they will learn”

❗️ The same works for adjectives and adverbs as well:

  • Там будет холодно. — “It will be cold out there.”
    (Tam budet kholodno.)
  • Я буду дома. — “I will be home.”
    (Ya budu doma.)
  • Это будет для нас хорошим уроком. — “It’ll be a good lesson for us.”
    (Eto budet dlya nas khoroshim urokom.)

Way 2: Simple future [for the perfective aspect]

The perfective form of the verb + the present tense endings

Group 1
играть (igrat’) – “to play”

я поиграю* (ya poigrayu) – “I will play a bit”
ты поиграешь (ty poigrayesh’) – “you will play a bit” [inf.]
он поиграет (on poigrayet) – “he will play a bit”
мы поиграем (my poigrayem) – “we will play a bit”
вы поиграете (vy poigrayete) – “you will play a bit” [form., pl.]
они поиграют* (oni poigrayut) – “they will play a bit”
* Use the endings -ю, -ют after vowels
or the soft sign (я думаю, они читают).

Use -у, -ут after consonants (я расту).
Group 2
учить (uchit’) – “to learn,” “to teach”

я выучу* (ya vyuchu) – “I will learn”
ты выучишь (ty vyuchish’) – “you will learn” [inf.]
она выучит (ona vyuchit) – “she will learn”
мы выучим (my vyuchim) – “we will learn”
вы выучите (vy vyuchite) – “you will learn” [form., pl.]
они выучат* (oni vyuchat) – “they will learn”
* Use the endings and -ат after the letters Ж, Ш, Ч, Щ, and all hard consonants.

Use and -ят after soft consonants and vowels.

There’s no clear answer as to which prefix to use with the perfective form. The meaning might differ drastically depending on the prefix.

Compare:

  • он идёт (on idyot) – “he is walking”
  • он придёт (on pridyot) – “he will come”
  • он уйдёт (on uydyot) – “he will leave”
  • он отойдёт (on otoydyot) – “he will stand back”

My advice is to just learn the verb together with the prefix and the meaning it brings. Treat it as a new word. You’ll soon start seeing the logic behind many prefixes because they’re not completely random. Similarly to the particles of English phrasal verbs, they tend to have a specific meaning. For instance, the prefix по- often indicates that an action was short: 

поиграть (poigrat’) – “to play a bit”
почитать (pochitat’) – “to read a bit”
поспать (pospat’) – “to sleep a bit”

A Couple Getting Done Playing a Video Game Together

Поиграем? (Poigrayem?)
Shall we play?

5. What’s Next?

How do you feel about Russian tenses now? Are you ready to talk about present, past, and future events in Russian? In this article, we’ve covered the most typical cases of verb conjugation, mostly focusing on regular verbs. But if you feel like looking deeper into the topic, feel free to see our list of helpful resources below.

While reading, you must have noticed many similarities between the Russian and English systems of tenses. Try to remember those by mere analogy, and for the rest, I encourage you to look for the patterns in each tense. There is some logic behind them.

Obviously, mastering the Russian tenses and remembering all the endings would require lots of practice. This is where our RussianPod101 teachers can come to your aid! With our Premium PLUS service, MyTeacher, you get personal one-on-one coaching with a tutor. Feel free to ask any questions you have about Russian tenses or verb conjugation—our tutors are there to help you! You can also request some grammar and vocabulary exercises to drill the conjugation patterns into your mind. In addition to this, you’ll receive some speaking and writing assignments to boost your Russian skills on all fronts! Give it a try!

Eager to learn more? 

Happy learning with RussianPod101!

About the author: Dzhuliia Shipina is a Russian linguist and a language teacher. For the past few years, she’s been traveling around the world and sharing her passion for languages with other inquiring minds. She invites you to explore the beauty of Russian and unravel its mysteries together.

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