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For Russia, with love

The White House to The New York Times to the BBC to think tanks across the world -- Columbia University Professor Padma Desai is one person they must all talk to understand what is happening in the ever changing scenario in Russia.

Desai, one of the most distinguished economists on any American campus, had been drawn to the then Soviet Union since teaching in India many decades ago, specializing on the impact of the Soviet economy and planning on that country. Desai, who earned her doctorate from Harvard, is married to formidable economist Jagadish Bhagwati, who is also a professor at Columbia University. Her book Conversations on Russia was a 2006 Pick of the Year by The Financial Times.

in her words
'If someone were to introduce the American constitution and American laws from A to Z in another society, he would fail miserably. The American model functions in America because of its history. We have to keep in mind our history and our problems and not overestimate some aspects that can function efficiently in other societies with a better history.'
Photo: Mohammed Jaffer /
She has been praised for her imaginative and creative approach in writing the book: she interviewed key policy makers about what they had in mind and their understanding of events over the last 15 years. In conversations with important figures like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, Desai, seen here with Robert Solow, Nobel Laureate in Economics, asks why the Soviet Union fell apart under Gorbachev, what went wrong with economic reforms thereafter, and whether the privatization of Russian assets could have been managed differently.

'Throughout my career I have been chasing ideas,' Desai said in an interview. 'The great satisfaction I have had as an intellectual is the opportunity to have my ideas heard. In chasing ideas, I often wonder why it is that geographical markers like mountains can inspire Indians to compose poetry, Americans to climb them, and Russians to lapse into gloom. Maybe it's the soulfulness of a nation's people -- what the Russians call dukhovnost. What takes place in a people's soul makes their nation.'

The passion she brought to the interviews and her masterly analysis of the Russian scene are also evident in her classes, making her one of the most valued and popular professors at Columbia. Her commitment to academia, and the sense of purpose she has long brought to classrooms across America, make her that rare commodity -- a great teacher.