The Russian language is fascinating - a wonderful way to discover the history and culture of the land of the Tsars, the former USSR (though remember, not all ex-USSR countries speak it!) and architectural marvels such as the Kremlin in Moscow and most of the city of St. Petersburg. It is one of the East Slavic languages from the Indo-European family, and as such has, apart from its own writing system, the Cyrillic alphabet, a lot of grammatical particularities that set it aside from English.

Now, when you are learning Russian, you can memorize all the vocabulary you like - learning new words is always a good idea (you might want to invest in Russian-English dictionaries or apps) - but at some point, you will have to tackle Russian grammar, and more specifically, Russian verbs.

Though verb conjugation may at first seem daunting, don’t forget: Russian children have to learn it, too, and it will open to you a whole new world of Russian literature. Wouldn’t it be nice to read Tolstoy in the original?

The Russian Personal Pronouns in the Nominative

When you learn Russian verbs, you will conjugate them using the personal pronouns in the nominative case. This simply means that the subject of the verb is a pronoun (he/she rather than a thing or person).

The pronouns are:

Pronoun typeEnglish pronounRussian pronoun
First person singularIЯ
Second person singularyouТЬІ
Third person singular masculine / feminine / neuterhe/she/itОН / ОНА / ОНО
First person pluralweМЬІ
Second person pluralyouВЬІ
Third person pluraltheyОНИ

Remember, in Russian sentences, pronouns used as a direct or indirect object come before the verb!

Russian Verb Basics

The infinitive of Russian Verbs

The infinitive is the basic form of the verb. It is not conjugated. Verb tenses are formed by modifying the infinitive in some way - in Indo-European languages, this generally means replacing the infinitive ending with a conjugation suffix specific to that tense. In some languages, the infinitive word stem can be modified in other ways according to tense.

Occasionally, an infinitive is used instead of a participle in building composite tenses.

Russian infinitive endings

Russian infinitives usually end in -ТЬ after a vowel or -ТИ after a consonant. In these cases, -ТЬ or -ТИ will be dropped when conjugating and replaced with the appropriate suffix.

Other verbs end in -ЧЬ, but this is not an infinitive suffix - in other words, the ending for the right tense conjugation will be tacked on after -ЧЬ rather than replacing it.

Signs don't always use verbs - but you should.
When learning the Russian language, you can't deal without verbs forever. Photo credit: frankrolf on VisualHunt

First and Second Conjugation

Depending on the ending of the infinitive, Russian verbs will be conjugated differently. Here are some of the more common Russian verbs.

The first conjugation includes verbs with the endings:

  • -ать
  • -ять
  • -еть
  • -овать
  • -нуть

The second conjugation includes verbs ending in:

  • -ить

Reflexive verbs

Generally, reflexive verbs are verbs where the action is applied to the subject: I dressed myself, she dressed herself (as opposed to she dressed a doll.)

In English, we build reflexive verbs by adding -self after the verb. Russian simply adds another suffix to the verb conjugation.

  • When the verb ends in a vowel, you add -съ
  • When the verb ends in a consonant, you add -ся

So you conjugate “to dress”, одевать:

I dress: Я одеваю

And “to dress oneself”, одеваться:

I dress myself: Я одеваюсь
She dresses herself: Она одевается

In the Russian language, the reflexive form is also used for:

  • Reciprocity. Where English would write “each other “ (we wrote to each other, we love each other), Russian generally uses the reflexive form.
  • Intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take a direct object, such as to cry, to work, to talk).
  • Verbs expressing a state or emotion. Where English might say “to be mistaken”, Russian has the reflexive verb ошибаться with a reflexive ending.
  • In some forms of passive voice.

Irregular verbs

Of course, as in any language, not all Russian verbs are conjugated the same. Irregular verbs can have different endings in conjugation, or their stem (the main part of the verb that stays the same in regular verbs) can change according to person or tense. You can take Russian lessons to learn more about irregular verbs.

In Russian, most irregular verbs change their stem but belong to the first or second conjugation. This article gives an overview of how Russian irregular verbs work.

The Present Tense in Russian

The good news about the Russian present tense is that there is only one.

Unlike English verbs, which have several present tenses - simple present (I learn), present continuous (I am learning) or present perfect (I have learned) - Russian only has the one.

The present tense is used to express:

  • an action taking place at the time of speaking (говорю, I speak - In English we would use the present continuous “I am speaking”)
  • actions that occur regularly (the moon waxes and wanes) or habitually ( Каждое утро я встаю в 7 часов, I get up at 7 every morning.)
  • actions that began in the past and that are still happening (or just stopped at the moment of speaking - the equivalent of English present perfect)

Conjugation of the present tense changes slightly depending on what sort of verb it is. The suffixes show in the tables replace the infinitive endings in most verbs.

The Russian present tense.
The present tense in Russian is quite simple. Photo credit: frankrolf on VisualHunt

The first conjugation in the present tense

ОН / ОНА / ОНО-ет

The present tense of the second conjugation

Я-ю (-у)
ОН / ОНА / ОНО-ит
ОНИ-ят (-ат)

The Past Tense in Russian

Rejoice all ye who are taking Russian language lessons - once again, where English has a past simple, past progressive, past perfect and even past perfect progressive, Russian has only one simple past tense.

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However, conjugating it works a little differently from the present tense.

To indicate that the verb is in the past tense, you will be adding the suffix -л to the stem of the verb, then adding the verb tense ending to that.

Thus, the past tense of плавать, to swim, is плавал.

Now, the wonderful thing is that after that, you only have to memorize an additional feminine and neuter ending and only one plural ending. Isn’t that nice?

So you conjugate the past tense in the following way:

Masculine singular (Я,ТЬІ, ОН)no ending (just the suffix -л)
Feminine singular (Я,ТЬІ, ОНА)suffix + -а
Neuter singular (ОНО)suffix + -о
All plurals (МЬІ, ВЬІ, ОНИ)suffix + -и
Verb tenses are important for communication.
Knowing your verb tenses is useful for describing actions. Photo credit: sarae on VisualHunt

The Future Tense in Russian

When you learn to speak Russian, you will occasionally need to talk about things that have not happened yet. For that, your Russian courses London will need to cover the verb conjugations for the future tense, of which Russian has (gasp!) two: simple and compound.

The simple future

Verbs with a perfective aspect use the simple future. A perfective verb is one whose action is single and complete - often of short duration, but they can be longer.

For example, "I know" or, in some instances, "I learned", is a single action, whereas “I found out” implies a series of actions. “I walked” versus “I roamed” is another example.

In English, the distinction between a perfective or imperfective verb does not affect grammar much.

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However, in Russian, perfective verbs have no present tense (since you can’t find out something in the time it takes to say it, though you can learn the declension of a noun.) So Russian uses the same endings as the present to indicate actions that will be finished by the time you are talking about (such as in the English phrase “he will have eaten by the time you pick him up.”)

This is not unusual - we often use the present tense to indicate future actions (Tomorrow, I am going to the cinema.)

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The future perfect is conjugated thus:

 First conjugationSecond conjugation
Я-ю (-у)
ОН / ОНА / ОНО-ет-ит
ОНИ-ют-ят (-ат)
Understand Russian verb tenses to read Russian books.
If you want to read books in Russian, you will need to understand the tenses to understand them. Photo credit: thistleferret on VisualHunt

Compound future

In Russian grammar rules, a compound tense is used for verbs with an imperfective aspect, meaning that the auxiliary verb быть “to be” is set before the verb and conjugated, while the verb describing the action is left in the infinitive (Russian doesn’t use the past participle in this case).

To recapitulate, the compound future is:

быть + infinitive

Of course, the auxiliary быть must be conjugated with the appropriate suffixes. As in most languages, “to be” is irregular in Russian, so its stem is slightly modified in the future tense.

As an example, the verb чиать “to read” would appear as follows:

Ябуду чиать
ТЬІбудешь чиать
ОН / ОНА / ОНОбудет чиать
МЬІбудем чиать
ВЬІбудете чиать
ОНИбудут чиать

These are just the basic verb forms of this East Slavic Language. We haven’t even begun on the past or present participles, the subjunctive mood or imperative mood or even the passive voice! So why not ask your Russian tutor for help in learning them?

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Sonia is an Egyptologist turned writer and translator. She speaks 3 and a half languages, can translate hieroglyphs and enjoys yoga, singing, embroidery and travelling through all of time and space.