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What is the difference between "лет тому назад" and just "лет назад"?

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On the face of it, it would appear that лет назад is anchored in the present whereas лет тому назад is relative and thus more suitable for talking about the "past before the past". I don't think anyone would find this usage correct:

В 1991 году распался СССР; год назад РСФСР приняла декларацию о суверенитете.

The idea of тому назад, I think, was that you could instead say:

В 1991 году распался СССР; год тому назад РСФСР приняла декларацию о суверенитете.

Except — nobody actually says it like that. The distinction has either fallen out of use or never really caught on.

As a result, good and proper Russian would avoid using the expression in any way, shape or form — and instead say, e.g.

В 1991 году распался СССР; за год до этого РСФСР приняла декларацию о суверенитете.

So we have лет назад which is strictly relative to the present, and we have лет тому назад which is... also strictly relative to the present. What, indeed, is the difference?

My impression is that лет тому назад is used for the same reason I just used the English expression, in any way, shape, or form. Just for the ostentatious verbosity of it.

Put simply, лет тому назад in its modern usage is a mere embellishment. And, as such, it's not for every occasion (you run a risk of sounding, at least a little bit, like the turtle from Buratino), whereas you can't really go wrong with just лет назад.

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  • What on earth do you mean by that? – Yellow Sky Jun 13 at 11:37
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    @YellowSky What's not clear? – Nikolay Ershov Jun 14 at 5:01
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The original version of this expression was тому назад, как:

  • Шесть недель тому назад, как писал я к Никону, которого и теперь цалую.

  • Только три дни тому назадъ, какъ я возвратился изъ Праводъ, и въ продолженіе столь короткаго времени ― сколько новыхъ картинъ, новыхъ чувствъ, мыслей и впечатлѣній!

  • Неделя тому назад как я видел такой экземпляр в этом роде, что прямо в печать просится.

This form fell out of use about a hundred years ago. However, even before it had fallen out of use, it started to be gradually replaced by назад, тому назад and как

  • Месяц тому назад я съездил домой

  • Месяц назад я съездил домой

  • Месяц, как я съездил домой

The first two are completely equivalent, meaning "a month ago"; the third one means more "it's been a month since" and is usually used with negations:

  • Месяц, как я не ездил домой.

There is a couple of stylistic differences between the first two, like the one with тому назад can use a freer word order:

  • Я съездил домой тому назад месяца с два

, but otherwise they are semantically equivalent.

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Just some thoughts on the topic.

Тому назад is an idiom with тому being optional. Thus we could tell that the meaning is generally the same, but тому adds a bookish style to the sentence. Both variants explain how much time has passed since the present moment. Десять лет назад ---- сегодня исполнилось десять лет ,как что -то произошло.

Грамота.ру. explains the meaning of тому : В современном языке тому назад – фразеологизованное наречное выражение. Думаем, что историческое значение слова "тому" можно очень приблизительно реконструировать следующим образом: год (исполнился) тому (событию)...

But sometimes they are not interchangeable.

Страна отброшена политически, экономически и социально на сорок лет назад. [Ю. О. Домбровский. Хранитель древностей

In this context we cannot insert тому .

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Wow. Never crossed my mind... Тому is a version of То with assumption of some force or an action applied to that. So I assume the answer by Nikolay Ershov is more correct than by others. It's pointing to the past happening before something else in the past. One would say

Месяц назад

when telling a story about the center of our attention happening one month ago while

Месяц тому назад

would be preferred when shifting the attention from something happening in past to another event happening one month before it. In other words, a sequence of predecessor and a results are important here. I can't imagine when I would use Тому without putting the two events into the context same time.

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