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In Memoriam: Padma Desai (1931-2023)
May 1, 2023

Padma Desai, Gladys and Roland Harriman Professor of Comparative Economic Systems and Director of the Center for Transition Economies, joined the Columbia faculty in 1980 as Professor of Economics.  After earning her undergraduate and M.A. degrees in Bombay, Desai made the journey to Harvard in 1955 for her Ph.D. degree in economics on a fellowship from the American Association of University Women. In her frank and moving memoir, Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey (MIT Press, 2013), Desai describes the Harvard years as “Four Years of Magical Awakening.” (You can read an excerpt of Breaking Out in Harriman Magazine.) Fortunately for us, Desai managed to reproduce the magic of those Harvard years here at Columbia for her students and colleagues.

As Desai writes in her memoirs, she began her “Russian discovery motivated by her love for Russian language and literature.” We are taken into Padma’s Russian world in her remarkable Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin (Oxford University Press, 2006). One is immediately struck by the wide-ranging nature of these conversations, which are not by any means limited to economic reforms, and the diverse cast of interviewees—ranging from Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, and Boris Nemtsov, to Martin Malia and Richard Pipes, historians of imperial Russia. It’s no surprise that the Financial Times selected Desai’s Conversations as a top pick for 2006.

Those are only two of Desai’s fifteen books and monographs. Among the many others, one might single out her Financial Crisis, Contagion, and Containment: From Asia to Argentina (Princeton University Press, 2003), which was described by Paul Krugman as the “best book yet on financial crises.”

In addition to her scholarly activity, Desai was a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and appeared on the Mac-Neil Lehrer News Hour, CNN, BBC, and the Charlie Rose Show.

Desai has been a cherished and indispensable member of the Harriman Institute faculty for over forty years. She’s brought scores of interesting and important guests to Harriman and Columbia through her many contacts in Russia. She has represented Harriman at home and abroad in quite diverse fora as panelist, moderator and discussant. She may be the only Harriman faculty member to be a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations and PEN America.

The Harriman Institute established the Padma Desai Summer Fellowship, thanks to a generous gift from Desai and her husband, Jagdish Bhagwati. The Desai Fellowship supports travel and living expenses for summer research, travel, language training, or internship opportunities for students in Russian studies.

We extend our heartfelt condolences to Professor Bhagwati and their daughter Anuradha.


Photo: Professor Desai leads a discussion at Middlebury College’s commencement weekend (June 2011). Desai was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Photo by Brett Simison, published in Harriman Magazine.