Это (часть вторая)

by Don  

One interesting and very common use of unchanging это is to refer to a situation broadly. Consider this sentence:

Я всю ночь не спал из-за шума. Это опять были наши соседи. I didn't sleep all night because of the noise. It was our neighbors again.

Although «Это были наши соседи» and “It was our neighbors” resemble each other superficially, they are grammatically quite different. In the English sentence “it” is the subject, singular “was” agrees with “it”, and “neighbors” is a predicate noun in the plural. In the Russian sentence соседи is the subject and induces verbal agreement. Notice that это does not agree in gender with anything in the sentence that precedes it. It's not referring to the night. It's not referring to the noise or the neighbors. It refers to the whole, abstract situation. Here are a couple other examples.

Сегодня в два часа ночи в дверь постучали. Это была моя сестра. At two o'clock in the morning there was a knock at the door. It was my sister.
Зимой 1970-ого года я жил в Норильске. Это был ад. Собачий холод, шесть недель совсем не было солнца, и даже местный самогон не мог облегчить нашу скуку. In the winter of 1970 I lived in Norilsk. It was hell. It was miserably cold. For six weeks there was no sun at all, and not even the local homebrew could relieve our boredom.

This use of unchanging это is not limited to “be” sentences. For instance, in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov confesses with this phrase:

Это я убил старуху.¹ It was I who killed the old woman.

This use is a bit different than the one we discussed earlier because instead of referring to a whole abstract situation, это serves to direct the listener's focus on the identity of one particular person in the situation:

Когда мы были детьми, это папа покупал продукты, а не мама. When we were kids, it was Dad who did the shopping, not Mom.
Это брат просит картинки показать, а не я. It's my brother who is asking you to show us the pictures, not me.

¹ The precise quote is «Это я убил тогда старуху-чиновницу и сестру ее Лизавету топором и ограбил.» “It was I who killed the old woman and her sister Elizabeth with an axe and robbed them.”

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