GNU/Linux in Ukraine: A Look Back and a Glimpse into the Future

  • When Ukraine became independent in 1991, the new country and its people had to learn to navigate an unfamiliar conceptual landscape that included “market economy”, “private entrepreneurship”, “freedom of choice”, and other terms that were, for all intents and purposes, unknown to ordinary Ukrainian citizens because of the country’s decades-long history as a constituent part of the USSR. Inevitably, during a decade of upheaval that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, “survival of the fittest” in its crudest form became the norm in the business arena – those who were the most ruthless toward their competitors also became the most successful (I would hazard a guess that the “Wild West ‘90’s” became infamous not only throughout the post-Soviet lands but also far and wide beyond Ukraine).

    Pioneering private businesses faced an uphill battle not unlike trying to put a man on the Moon by launching him from a giant slingshot: an aspiring businessperson had to bribe bureaucrats at various levels, make arrangements with the criminal underworld to ensure reliable “protection”, and, most importantly, to persuade average citizens reeling from their newfound freedom to spend hard-earned cash on new goods and services that, until recently, were completely unknown to them.

    The aforementioned chaos turned out to be a golden opportunity for certain multinational companies that were better positioned to manage the risk of an inhospitable business environment, with the result that in the mid-90’s the phrase “to buy a computer” came to mean only “to buy a computer with pre-installed Windows software”. Such an outcome was advantageous not only for those directly involved in developing the operating system, but also for a variety of Ukrainian manufacturers, both big and small, who installed pirated “Windows” on computers that they then proceeded to sell at a steep premium amid assurances that the software was legitimate and licensed.

    It is necessary at this point to take a slight detour and to further explore the impact of the Soviet past on Ukraine in general and on every Ukrainian in particular. The “evil empire” – Soviet Union – left my fellow Ukrainians with a damaging “legacy” of negative personality traits (I guess, none of us would have come out unscathed after living in a totalitarian country). Some of the manifestations of this “Soviet mentality” include naïve willingness to trust any pronouncements of the so-called “experts” as well as exaggerated conservatism that causes resentment of anything new and occasionally leads to phobias.

    The passage of time had little positive effect on the proliferation of unlicensed software in Ukraine. Consumers got used to “freebies” and usually prefer to download the very same “Windows” software and other content from illegal pirating websites or torrent-tracker systems that provide detailed instructions on how to hack any computer program to get it to work. An ordinary Ukrainian also is not accustomed to paying for music recordings, as it can be easily downloaded in the mp3 format from multiple sources. Copyrighted movies fare no better, as one can find any film, including new releases, online and watch it without the need to register or obtain an access code. Consequently, an ordinary Ukrainian would be willing to pay for an operating system only in exceptional circumstances: indeed, the thinking goes, why pay when everything and anything is available online, and all one needs to do is download it?

    Failure to understand the very concept of free software (e.g., “How can it be any good if it’s free?” or “Unless you get for free something that otherwise costs a lot of money, it must not be worth anything”) as well as the prevalence of Windows and resistance to learning something new are the principal reasons why GNU/Linux had trouble getting a foothold in Ukraine for a while. One’s thinking would typically go as follows: “What is the point of downloading some confusing operating system if I can install the trusty – and also free – Windows which is so familiar after two decades of using it (never mind that it is pirated)? No learning new tricks for this ol’ dog! I do not want to try new things! Those who say that the other operating system is superior in some ways can keep it, as I am very content with what I have, thank you very much!”

    Despite this inauspicious beginning, the attitude toward GNU/Linux recently began to change, albeit slowly. The “Revolution of Dignity” – which is how the surge of popular resistance that toppled the corrupt regime of Victor Yanukovych came to be known – was a watershed moment. Following the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine chose a European vector of development and opened up to new opportunities. People began to change. In the past, hardly anybody bothered to think that not littering or being courteous toward one another was the right thing to do, or that all people were equal, and no one was inferior because of one’s skin color, creed, or sexual orientation, among others. Now, one can see palpable evidence that democratic and liberal values are being internalized and are slowly beginning to shape people’s attitudes.

    The same phenomena are evident in changing attitudes toward pirated software. A new generation of Ukrainians, who came of age after the collapse of the USSR and are not burdened by Soviet-era experiences, realizes that intellectual property (such as musical recordings, film, electronic books, etc.) is not a “free” product to be downloaded with impunity. Above all, it is a product of perseverance and hard work of every person who contributed to creating such intellectual property. And hard work must be rewarded by paying for it. At the same time, the young generation is looking to new technologies and to alternative, often better, solutions for their home computer systems. A home computer is precisely where the advantages of a Linux-based operating system are most apparent. Features that make Linux particularly attractive include open and unrestricted distribution of such an operating system and software as well as new, up-to-the-moment technologies that make Linux far superior to a “familiar” Windows operating system.

    At this time, GNU/Linux users are still a minority among all computer users in Ukraine: according to, only 1.74% of internet users had a Linux-based operating system as of June, 2017, and this number includes computers used for both personal and business purposes. Yet, even such a small number of Linux users is an accomplishment for a young post-Soviet country that only recently truly found itself.

    I believe that some of the main factors that impede the spread of GNU/Linux in Ukraine are, first, the continuing prevalence of online piracy and a pervasive stereotype that such software is designed solely for computer geeks because of its complexity, and second, the insufficient number of computer games in the “A” category. In combination with the post-Soviet mentality discussed above, the result is that people have been slow to warm up to Linux.

    This said, a small and tightly-knit yet welcoming community of Linux users in Ukraine perseveres and continues to peck away at the old order. The intuitive nature of the most recent release of Linux Mint is making the software increasingly popular among ordinary users who initially use it as a backup operating system, and later on – as their primary one. If this trend continues, then it will be the Ukrainians themselves who will spearhead further advance of GNU/Linux in Ukraine once they are ready to conquer the fear of the unfamiliar and to master something new and better than the tried-and-true alternative that tethers them to the past.