Russian past-tense verbs are marked for gender and number, but not person. That means there are four forms for every past tense verb, for example:
упасть/upast' – to fall.
упал/upal – fell-masc.
I fell (if the speaker is male), you fell (if 'you' refers to a male), he fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically masculine).
упала/upala – fell-fem.
I fell (if the speaker is female), you fell (if 'you' refers to a female), she fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically feminine).
упало/upalo – fell-neut.
it fell (for objects that are grammatically neuter), fell (in subjectless constructions).
упали/upali – fell-plur.
We fell, you (plural) fell, you (singular formal) fell, they fell.
Got it? Ok. Just two small observations:
1. This gender marking causes problems for little kids, like a boy I saw in the library who was running around shouting, "I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" (Past tense – to say "I'm leaving," you say, "I've set off.") Except he was using the feminine form. His grandma gently corrected him: Я пошёл, солнышко. Ты - мальчик. ("[correct masculine form], honey. You're a boy.") In a country where the task of raising children falls mostly to women, I have to wonder if a lot of Russian toddlers take longer to gain command of the masculine past tense form than the feminine. Hmm.
Edit: I realized this probably isn't that clear to most people. What I mean is that children who hear women say "I + [feminine verb]" all the time and rarely hear men say "I + [masculine verb]" could get confused about whether the past tense -a ending marks gender or person. But after thinking it over, I don't think that's all that likely.
2. Today I was sitting in the foreign languages department when one of the other teachers got up to leave. "Ok, I'm leaving," she said – except she used the masculine form! When she left, I asked the remaining teacher, a Russian language professor, why she had done that. She explained: "Everywhere we go, we have to speak properly. All day long, nothing but speaking properly. Sometimes you just want to let go and play around with the language a little. If you say something like that, and people know that you actually know how to speak correctly, it's funny. It's funny to say the wrong thing in moderation." I was dissatisfied with this explanation. I mean, I don't understand what exactly is funny about it. Maybe that's because we don't have an equivalent in English – something you can say that would be grammatical if you were someone else, but isn't if you're you. So I wonder: (a) if speakers of other morphologically rich languages do the same thing; and (b) if it's primarily gender marking, rather than, say, number marking or case marking, that gets played with. And if so, do men do it, too? HMM. I'm intrigued.
(You can tell by all the posts that I've had a lot of work to do/procrastinate on. Hope you're enjoying it!)