RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – As odd as it may seem given Russia’s Putin-led autocratic government, open source is in big demand across the gigantic country.

Yes, the Russian Bear bureaucracy, made up from ministries ranging from education to defense, wants an alternative to Microsoft. And Big Blue, along with several partners including Red Hat, are going after the market.

IBM said Tuesday that it would target the Russian market by working with two European IT partners to load PCs with software running on Red Hat Linux. However, the initiative doesn’t mean IBM is getting back into the PC manufacturing business.

“There was a misperception there (about PCs),” said Michael Azzi of IBM who called The Skinny on Tuesday to discuss the Russian offensive. “It’s a desktop offering. In fact, we are more active than ever before. … We never left the PC desktop business. We just don’t make or sell the desktop computers anymore.”

Two years ago, Big Blue sold its PC division, which was largely based in the Research Triangle. However, IBM continues to develop its software suite, and its expanding embrace of open source is gaining popularity, according to Azzi. In fact, IBM is counting on its new partnership to capitalize on what it sees as a software market in Russia that is as big as the country that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific.

As part of the Russia package, IBM is providing Lotus Symphony – “a free productivity toolset” as Azzi describes it – along with Lotus Notes. “Close to half a million people have already downloaded Symphony off the Web and are using it now instead of Microsoft Office,” Azzi said proudly.

IBM’s partners in the new effort are a software distributor in Austria named VDEL and a distributor and IT services firm in Poland called LX Polska. Just what company will provide the PCs is not clear at this point.

What is clear, however, is that the group wants to take open source to Russia.

Yes indeed, the Berlin Wall has truly fallen.