There are many difficult things about learning Russian regardless of which languages you already know. From an English speaker’s perspective however, one of the most difficult aspects (pun very much intended) of learning Russian is verbal aspect.
There are two verbal aspects in Russian: perfect and imperfect. Put simply, we use perfect aspect to talk about completed actions with a stable result and we use imperfect aspect to talk about actions currently in progress, repeated actions, and actions where the result has been cancelled. The fact that English has perfect tenses only serves to further confuse many people as the way that these tense are used and how they affect the meaning of verbs when they are used is completely different from anything you’ll see in Russian. Russian also has the added extra difficultly of the imperfect aspect of a verb and the perfect aspect of the same verb being two completely different words. Of course there are certain patterns to how many perfect and imperfect forms of verbs relate to each other – for example many verbs gain the prefix по- in their perfect forms, like слушать/послушать (to listen) and смотреть/посмотреть (to watch). Others however, like класть/положить (to lay) or покупать/купить (to buy), can be frustratingly irregular. Learning how to form these verbs is just a matter of practice, what’s more difficult is understanding how and when to use them. With that in mind here’s a guide to using verbal aspect perfectly (and imperfectly too).
Verbal Aspect in the Future
One of the first places you’ll meet the perfect aspect as a Russian learner is when talking about the future. The perfect forms of verbs, when conjugated like a present tense verb will always denote the future, meaning it’s impossible to use perfect verbs in the present tense. Take a look at the following examples with the imperfect/perfect verb pair читать/прочитать.
Я читаю – I read/am reading
Ты читаешь – You read/are reading
Они читают – They read/are reading
Я прочитаю – I will read
Ты прочитаешь – You will read
Они прочитают – They will read
If you use the perfect aspect to denote the future, it always suggests that the described action will be completed or some kind of result achieved.
Читать/Прочитать (to read)
Я прочитаю Ваше письмо завтра.
I will read your email tomorrow.
(The whole email will be read start to finish.)
Писать/написать (to write)
Я напишу статью к среде.
I will write the article by Wednesday.
(A completed article will be produced.)
If you want to talk about an action that will be in progress at a certain time in the future then you can use the infinitive form of the imperfect aspect with the auxiliary verb быть.
Жить/Прожить (to live)
Трудно представить, что через три месяца я буду жить в России.
It’s hard to imagine that in three months’ time I will be living in Russia.
Работать/поработать (to work)
В семь я буду работать, позвони попозже, пожалуйста.
I will be working at seven, please could you phone me later.
Sometimes you can also use imperfect verb forms in the present tense (without the auxiliary verb быть) to talk about future plans. This works much the same as when you would say something like “I’m flying to St. Petersburg on Sunday” in English and works with many of the same verbs that can be used this way in English (e.g. fly, meet, have lunch/dinner, etc.)
Лететь/Полететь (to fly)
Я лечу в Санкт-Петербург в воскресенье.
I am flying to St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Встречаться/встретиться (to meet)
Я встречаюсь с Наталией во вторник.
I am meeting with Natalia on Tuesday.
Ужинать/поужинать (to have dinner)
Мы ужинаем в японском ресторане сегодня вечером.
We are eating in a Japanese restaurant tonight.
Verbal Aspect in the Past
The perfect and imperfect aspects both perform a very similar function in the past tense to that which they perform in the future tense, namely perfect aspect is normally used when talking about a single completed action which has a clear result, whilst imperfect aspect is normally used when talking about an action in progress or an action that is often repeated. Take a look at the following phrases and make a note of the difference in meaning.
Покупать/Купить (to buy)
Вчера я купил новую книгу.
Yesterday I bought a new book.
(Completed action with a result: The person speaking completed the purchase of a book so now they have a book that they didn’t have before.)
В детстве я часто покупал книги на рынке.
During my childhood I often used to buy books from the market.
(Repeated action: The person speaking regularly bought books from the market.)
Читать/Прочитать (to read)
Вчера я прочитал целую книгу!
Yesterday I read a whole book!
(Completed action with a result: The person speaking read the book from start to end, so now they have finished it.)
Вчера в шесть я читал книгу.
At six o’clock yesterday I was reading a book.
(Action in progress: At six o’clock yesterday the speaker was in the process of reading a book, they did not finish reading it.)
As a result of this different in meaning if you use numerous verbs in their perfect forms in a row in the same sentence it gives the impression that they happened in series, that is, one after the other.
Я пришёл домой, открыл дверь, снял обувь и сел в любимое кресло.
I came home, opened the door, took off my shoes, and sat down in my favourite armchair.
On the other hand if you use numerous verbs in their imperfect forms in the same sentence it gives the impression that they happened simultaneously.
Чайки летали над нашими головами, пока мы бродили по набережной реки Невы и болтали.
Seagulls were flying above our heads whilst we strolled along the banks of the river Neva and chatted.
There are also a few other uses of the imperfect aspect in the past tense that are a little harder to understand. Firstly, we use the imperfect aspect when we’re talking about things that didn’t happen or have never happened. For example:
Видеть/Увидеть (to see)
Я никогда не видел белую ворону.
I have never seen a white raven.
Звонить/Позвонить (to phone)
Я ждал с 9 утра, но она мне не звонила.
I’ve been waiting since 9 o’clock in the morning but she hasn’t called me.
We can also use the imperfect aspect to talk about single actions where an expected result was not achieved or when the result was cancelled in some way. There are some examples of this below.
Звонить/Позвонить (to call)
Она позвонила ему, и он ответил.
She phoned me and I answered
(Perfect aspect: The woman phoned and got the expected result; the man she phoned answered.)
Она звонила ему, но он не отвечал.
She phoned you but you didn’t answer.
(Imperfect aspect: the woman phoned just once but did not get the result she expected – the man did not answer.)
Открывать/Открыть (to open)
Я открыл окно, потому что здесь жарко.
I opened the window because it is hot in here.
(Perfect Aspect: The speaker opened the window because it was hot. It is still hot and they haven’t closed the window, so window is still currently open.)
Я открывал окно утром, потому что было жарко.
I opened the window this morning because it was hot.
(Imperfect Aspect: The speaker opened the window earlier but shut it again later. The result was cancelled; the window is currently closed.)
Нравиться/Понравиться (to like – lit. to be pleasing)
Спасибо за билеты, мне очень понравился концерт.
Thank you for the tickets, I really enjoyed the concert.
(Perfect aspect: the speaker really enjoyed the concert and nothing has changed their mind since.)
Мне раньше нравился этот ресторан, но с тех пор, как наняли нового повара, качество еды ухудшилось.
I used to like this restaurant but since they hired a new chef the quality of the food has gone down.
(Imperfect aspect: The speaker liked the restaurant in the past but since then they have changed their mind, that is, the result of the action has been cancelled.)
Verbal Aspect with the Word “Нельзя”
The Russian word “нельзя” can have one of two meanings: forbidden or impossible. The exact meaning of the word is decided by whether the verb which follows it is in its perfect or imperfect form. If you use the perfect form of the verb, it means the action is physically impossible, whereas if you use the imperfective form of the verb, it means that the action has been forbidden by some higher authority.
Брать/Взять (to take)
Этот стул нельзя взять, он прикреплён к этому месту.
It is impossible to take this chair; it’s fixed to the ground.
Нельзя брать с собой в ручную кладь жидкие вещества в контейнерах объёмом больше ста миллилитров.
It is forbidden to take liquids in containers with a volume of over one hundred millilitres with you in your hand luggage.
Verbal Aspect with the Word “Мочь не”
There are also some difficulties that arise when using different verbal aspects with the phrase “мочь не” which is formed from the verb мочь (to be able to) and the negative particle не. If you use the perfect aspect with this phrase it suggests that you think something is likely not to happen. You would normally use this phrase when that thing not happening would have negative results.
Приходить/Прийти (to arrive by foot)
Я боюсь, он может не прийти
I’m afraid he might not come.
У меня очень мало времени, я могу не написать это эссе до завтра.
I have very little time, I might not be able to write this essay by tomorrow.
You use the imperfect aspect with this phrase when you want to suggest that there is no obligation for the chosen action to take place.
Приходить/Прийти (to arrive by foot)
Наверное, эта лекция будет не очень полезна тебе, ты можешь не приходить.
This lecture won’t be very useful for you, you don’t have to come.
Если у тебя недостаточно времени, ты можешь не писать это эссе.
If you don’t have enough time, you don’t have to write the essay.
Verbal Aspect with Imperatives
Another area where choice of verbal aspect can affect meaning is when using imperatives. Imperatives are command phrases like вставай (stand up) and молчи (be quiet).
You normally use the perfect aspect when you are telling someone to do something just one time, to give a one-off piece of advice, or when you want to give a formal or categorical command.
Приносить/Принести (to bring by hand)
Принестите, пожалуйста, выполненное домашнее задание на занятие завтра.
Please bring your completed homework to class tomorrow.
Говорить/Сказать (to speak/say/tell)
Просто скажи ему честно, как ты себя чувствуешь.
Just tell him honestly how you feel.
Заходить/Зайти (to come for a brief period of time)
Зайдите ко мне в кабинет в 17:00, пожалуйста.
Please come to my office at 17:00.
Молчать/Замолчать (to be quiet)
Замолчите! Мне надоели Ваши жалкие отговорки!
Be quiet! I’ve had enough of your pitiful excuses!
The imperfect aspect, on the other hand, is used to ask someone to do something multiple times, to change the way they perform a process, as a polite invitation with verbs of motion, or as a friendly but informal command.
Приносить/Принести (to bring by hand)
Приносите, пожалуйста, выполненные домашние задания на занятия каждый день.
Please bring your completed homework to class every day.
Слушать/Послушать (to listen)
Слушай внимательнее, и ты поймёшь.
Listen more carefully and you’ll understand.
Проходить/пройти (to come in)
Please, come in.
Рассказывать/Рассказать (to tell a story)
Рассказывай, как прошёл твой отпуск?
Tell me, how was your holiday?
If you memorize these main uses of perfect and imperfect verbal aspect in Russian, then you’ll be well on your way to speaking like a native. There are of course other small difficulties with and slight nuances to verbal aspect that you may encounter as you read and speak more in Russian, but fortunately the answer to this problem is simple, just keep practising! The more texts you read and the more people you speak with, the more you will get a feel for how to use and manipulate verbal aspect to convey exactly the meaning you want.