I was taught that hypothetical conditional statements in Russian always require the past tense and the hypothetical marker "бы" both in the main clause and dependent clause, like in the example below:

Если бы у меня было с собой достаточно денег, то я бы заказала мраморную говядину.

Since I was taught in this way, I got very much puzzled when I read today the following poem:


— Куда, курносая? — Иду я за душою;

— Къ кому? — Къ Секретарю, такъ велѣно Судьбою!

— Ахъ! какъ проста Судьба: живетъ она въ глуши.

Какой въ Секретарѣ, какой искатъ души!

Но еслибъ и была, то вѣрь, что прежде смерти,

Ту душу за алтынъ купить успѣютъ черти.

(From "Сочиненія А. Нахимова, въ стихахъ и прозѣ напечатанныя по смерти его," 1841)

The last two lines seem to be in violation of the rule I was taught, because the grammatical construction of the last two lines seems to boil down to: "Если бы она была, то верь, что они успеют." My understanding is that the construction should have been: "Верь, что если бы она была, то они успели бы." The author thus seems to have made two separate grave errors: he put the imperative "верь" inside a conditional and also failed to use the past tense and the hypothetical marker "бы" in the main clause.

I would therefore modify the last two lines of the poem as follows:

И вѣрь, что еслибъ и была, то прежде смерти,

Ту душу за алтынъ купить успѣлибъ черти.

This modification of mine does not even disturb the rhythm, so I am very much puzzled as to why the author did not make such an obvious change to avoid grave grammatical errors or whether my teachers taught me wrongly.

My question is this: Who is wrong - my teachers or the Russian poet?

In other words, is the construction "если бы она была, то верь, что они успеют" grammatical? If grammatical, I am curious whether the meaning is different from the meaning of the construction I was taught to use. If ungrammatical, I am curious how a talented Russian poet could make such grave grammatical errors.

  • 2
    I think it's all simple: Но еслибъ и была means the same as но [даже] если она есть, the protagonist of the poem assumes Secretary can possibly have a soul. – Yellow Sky Jul 5 '19 at 19:54
  • I agree: it's not a condition, it's an idiomatic assumption of soul's existence, before giving a piece of advice to believe in what follows then (which can be in any tense). – Alex_ander Jul 7 '19 at 8:39
  • But even assuming he has one [soul], still believe that the devil will beat death to buying his soul. – Alex_ander Jul 8 '19 at 12:13


I found a couple of relevant articles on RusGram.ru:

  1. Сослагательное наклонение, paragraph 4.2
  2. Модальность, paragraph 2.4

Quoting the second one:

В русском языке отчетливо противопоставлены реальное условие (с будущим временем в обеих частях условной конструкции) и контрфактивное (с сослагательным наклонением), ср. примеры (2а) и (2б) (примеры (2) из [Плунгян 2011: 429–430]). В [Плунгян 2011: 429] для русского языка усматривается также различие между реальным и нереальным (читай, «нереалистичным») условием – оно сводится к вероятности наступления ситуации.

But what’s more important, I didn’t find a single example of a sentence like the one your question is about (with «бы» in condition and future tense in another part) in these very long and verbose articles.

So we can say this construction is unknown in modern Russian.

Reader’s impression

However, these two forms of conditional statements have pretty close meaning: likely and unlikely situations. As for my reader’s impression, I didn’t immediately notice anything wrong. Generally, poetry justifies more flexible usage of language - I think the rhythm distracts the readers from grammatical peculiarities. Now I read your question and started nitpicking into that text, I’d say it sounds a bit unusual, but not immediately jarring.

Historical analysis

Now, we should look who the poet was. Akim Nakhimov lived in 1782-1814, and spent most of his life in Kharkiv area. Most of his poetry was stinging satire.


He lived in area associated with Southern dialect of Russian and Eastern (Slobozhan) dialect of Ukrainian. This feature may be dialectic, but I don’t have enough competence to be sure.


He lived and wrote right before Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Pushkin is usually credited with canonizing modern Russian literary language, so those who were before him may sound archaic. Pushkin’s language is likely based on Moscow and Petersburg dialects of his time, but that’s another question.


In Nakhimov’s time, Lomonosov’s ideas on three styles were likely still considered authoritative. Satire and comedy corresponded to middle and low style. It was Pushkin who more and more disregarded this and drawn them closer, so they finally merged into one literary language.


Your teacher is right, such sentences are practically nonexistent in modern Russian language. But this poem is not modern, It was written right before the formative time of modern Russian - Pushkin’s lifetime. You can generally consider Pushkin’s and later language modern and everything before archaic or early modern.

  • A construction

    Если бы Vpast, то бы Vpast

    is used when both an action and its condition are located in the same (past) period of time, so a speaker regrets that they missed both of them or wishes/dreams about both of them to come true. This is enough for the vast majority of cases, hence your teacher gave you a comprehensive rule.

    For example:

    Даже если бы ты и пришёл, в суде это не имело бы никакого значения.

    means that a court case is already done in the past, and a possibility to go somewhere expired in the past as well.

  • However, sometimes there are situations where a condition is already satisfied, but it is not enough to perform an action in the future.

    For example:

    Даже если бы ты и пришёл, в суде это не будет иметь никакого значения.

    means that a possibility to come has already expired (so there is a regret), but a court where it has consequences will still be in the future.

So a phrase:

[...] если б [душа] и была, то [...] [её] за алтын купить успеют черти.

means that whether the soul did or did not exist, the only outcome/consequence/final (its purchase by devils if possible) will come later.

  • Wow! This is something totally new for me. Let's suppose I just missed a train to Osaka. If I had not missed it, I would be in Osaka in two hours. Can I say this: "Если бы я не опоздала на поезд, то через два часа я буду в Осаке"? – Mitsuko Jul 5 '19 at 19:03
  • You would be in Osaka, so no, mixed tense conditional is not applicable here. Personally, I use the following idea: if someone would/could do something, they already missed an opportunity relative to a moment of speech, so past tense only is used here. A rule of thumb is that the future tense is used for an action only if the action will happen anyway, and the condition just alters some details. – Arhadthedev Jul 5 '19 at 19:13
  • I unintentionally made a mistake in the last sentence of my answer (So a phrase...). I retranslated it, so English translation of a part from a poem should be correct now. – Arhadthedev Jul 5 '19 at 19:19
  • @Mitsuko, also I forgot to answer your initial direct question. Your fix is correct, but it conveys that the person has already died and the devils already took/did not take his soul if possible. – Arhadthedev Jul 5 '19 at 19:24
  • My understanding of the poem is that Secretary has no soul. If he had a soul, demons would buy it before Death came to take it. But demons will NOT buy Secretary's soul, for it does not exist, in the first place. Is my understanding wrong? – Mitsuko Jul 5 '19 at 19:27

Just to add to the other answers, if the clause after the conditional is negative, future tense is ok, especially if time is specified, like "прежде смерти", but if positive it's not. Although, in your example:

Not ok:

Если бы у меня было с собой достаточно денег, то я закажу мраморную говядину.


Даже если бы у меня было с собой достаточно денег, я все равно не стану заказывать мраморную говядину.

The latter still sounds strange because when we talk about ourselves and use the future tense we usually mean a plan of action that we have decided on, so using it with a conditional is strange.

In second or third person though, future tense is also often used to mean habit or high probably of something happening.

More natural:

Даже если бы у него было с собой достаточно денег, он все равно не станет заказывать мраморную говядину.

Not that first person is wrong, but just rarely used that way. Perhaps someone knows the grammatical rules regarding this?

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