Suffice to say the possibility that Buterin would found three multi-million dollar businesses and retire in his 40s was beyond his wildest imaginings growing up in Grozny, Chechnya in the former Soviet Union during the 1970s.
“Of course not,” the Toronto resident says in a still quite prominent accent. “Because in the Soviet Union, when you retire, you’re pretty much close to death. And everybody is more or less equally poor. And you just basically sort of survive.”
@BlockGeekDima is a familiar figure on Crypto Twitter, amassing 31,000 followers and offering a playful and thoughtful take on the petty infighting and maximalism in the space. Quite apart from fathering Vitalik, he also introduced his son to Bitcoin, setting in motion the sequence of events that led to the creation of the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency.
Buterin shares custody with his ex-wife Maia of their two daughters Misha, 13 and Katya, 10. Considering his first experience with children was raising a super genius, it must be a very different experience raising more normal kids.
“When Vitalik was born, I was 21 years old, still in university and working full time and the Soviet Union was falling apart around me,” he says. “I’m much older, [it’s a] different environment, different child, everything is different.”
“I was the best that I could have been in circumstances that existed back then. But yes, I am a very different dad now than I was when I was 21.”
Despite growing up under communism, Buterin went on to become a model capitalist, with his most successful venture the software as a service company Wild Apricot. He also co-founded blockchain education resource BlockGeeks.com and is an enthusiastic participant in the crypto space.
This is how half a trilly started.
Looks healthy and will likely grow to a full trillion and beyond pic.twitter.com/I57jVibLom
— Dima ButΞrin (@BlockGeekDima) May 12, 2021
Creating the creator
While he passed on his interest in technology to Vitalik and gave him the first push toward cryptocurrency, he’s reluctant to claim any credit for his son’s success.
“People quite often tell me ‘Oh you must be so proud of Vitalik’ and in a way I am but every human being is an outcome of so many factors such as the humans around him, his genetics, the environment. And I am one of those factors, right? But why is ‘me’ the way that I am? I’m the influence of another million factors.”
“So for Vitalik, to have invented Ethereum, all of the things in the universe had to be the way they were for that to happen. So, this is kind of my fundamental view of life.”
Buterin often answers the simplest of questions with a philosophical treatise. It’s who he is these days.
“If you saw my Twitter, you will find that you will not be surprised to find a lot of my answers are pretty philosophical. Because that is really the nature of the way I think about the world nowadays.”
Buterin has always been a voracious reader, mainlining information through books as a child thanks to his own parents who built up an extensive home library at a time and place when books were a luxury.
His interests and obsessions change and develop from science to electronics, computing, futurism, libertarianism and cybersecurity. For a while, he was fascinated by “entrepreneurship, human psychology, and personal development” before he moved on to “spirituality, which is a very broad term, which can mean so many different things to people. That’s been my interest maybe in the last 10-15 years.”
“It’s really an attempt to answer the most important questions. What is you? What is me? What is being human? Consciousness. What is happiness? What is love? What’s God?”
Following in the footsteps of people like the famed psychologist Timothy Leary, who began researching psychedelic drugs at Harvard when he was in his 40s and became an advocate for consciousness expansion via LSD, Buterin has also become interested in turning on and tuning in.
“My first ever experience with this when I was 42, after reading Sam Harris and then realizing that maybe I’ve been brainwashed and sold a bag of bullshit by the government all of my life,” he says, adding that he spent an entire year researching psychedelics before deciding he wanted to try them.
“So eventually, I did my first experiment when I was 42 years old — that was LSD. Then, I tried mushrooms later on when I was 43 and then I had a whole bunch of experiences, which really also affected my view of the world, the consciousness of the world and everything. So, I would say that they were one of the important factors on my life path.”
Tinkering with computers
Born in 1972, Dmitry Buterin developed an interest in electronics early on, and later cybernetics. During the 1980s, the USSR was lagging behind when it came to the adoption of PCs — by 1989 there were still only 200,000 computers in the entire country — so Buterin had to make do with what he had.
“What I would call my first computer was really just a big scientific calculator which had 100 bytes of memory. And it would wipe the memory every time you switch it off, so you had to switch it on, type the whole program and data into the memory and then you could run it. And it was fascinating. So, I played with that and learned the basics of programming.”
At around 15, he got his first chance to play around on a terminal connected to a huge mainframe computer that took up several rooms in a building.
“It was very limited but again, they captivated my imagination. And once I saw that then I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
An older neighbor called Vitaly shared his interest in electronics and helped show him the ropes. “From my totally random amateurish attempt, he kind of gave me a bit of direction, so I’m quite grateful for his influence,” he says. While Vitalik wasn’t directly named after Vitaly, Buterin says it was probably a factor.
“When we were thinking about options and names, the name Vitalik felt very poised for me and Natalia was good with that, so that was definitely a factor in all of that.”
Buterin moved to Moscow at the age of 17 to study computer science at the Moscow Institute of Electronic Engineering.
In an early example of his entrepreneurial spirit, he took long train and bus journeys with friends to Czechoslovakia to sell Russian souvenirs to nostalgic locals in the former Soviet Bloc country. His expenses were only around $10 a month, so the trip helped pay for his studies for a considerable length of time.
“So, like, making a couple of hundred dollars on this trip, you could live on that basically for the whole year.” On his travels, Buterin also got to see how the rest of the world lived, with stores in the Czech Republic piled high with thousands of consumer goods, in comparison to the 50-100 products a Russian store carried.
“So, I would go into any store, just open your eyes and look at all of these different things and this colorful packaging. It was just mind boggling that this stuff existed and it was available.”
The chosen one
In 1990, he began seeing a computer science student called Natalia Ameline from the National Research University of Electronic Technology. She was from Kolomna near Moscow and that’s where Vitalik was born in 1994.
“It was not planned, no,” says Buterin. “It was very stressful for a whole bunch of reasons. We were still students in the university. And we had to work full time to survive and the Soviet Union is falling apart. Inflation is like, hundreds if not 1000s of percentage points a year and also the supply chain totally broke down.”
It seems like a curious bit of symmetry that crypto aims to solve the problems of centralized control, runaway inflation and broken supply chains that failed so badly in the USSR.
Buterin got a job that same year at Arthur Andersen Business Consulting as a computer systems consultant and was able to travel a few times a year outside of Russia. In 1997, he started his first business Columbus Russia, a financial software reseller and consultancy.
Buterin says the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in that time and place actually made starting a business easier “because it was a wide-open environment. So the bar was set very low.”
“It was, in a way, the Wild West. So, it was exciting and interesting, lot’s of opportunities.”
Moving to Canada
By this time Buterin had split up with Natalia and started seeing Maia who’d become his second wife, they all moved to start a new life in Canada — to “explore life out of Russia and to escape the chaos and uncertainty” — with Vitalik living with Dmitry and Maia while Natalia completed her financial education.
“I had a better home base for that, and his mom, she went on to university to live in a dorm at Edmonton. It was a temporary solution, then it kind of became a permanent thing,” he says.
“And it worked out for the best for all of us as she was going to try to build her own life and whatnot, and I really appreciated the opportunity to kind of take care of him.”
21 years ago today moved from Russia to Toronto, Canada pic.twitter.com/q39jlec8yL
— Dima ButΞrin (@BlockGeekDima) December 25, 2020
Buterin embraced the opportunities in Canada and created some of his own. He founded online mental health startup Powerinside the year he moved and in 2001, the custom web app developers Bonasource. His most successful venture was a pivot of Bonasource called Wild Apricot which offered web-based software enabling non-profits to manage their IT needs like websites, databases and event registrations. He devoted more than a decade to the project and was able to retire on the proceeds of selling his stock when the company was bought by United States software giant Personify in 2017.
Wild Apricot had 10,000 customers on its books and provided another 10,000 with free services.
“In my mind, the heart of capitalism is altruistic, at least that’s how it is for me. Because for business to be successful, it has to solve some specific problems for specific people and be really good at that.”
He adds: “Every business, when it is built the right way, really delivers the benefit to its customers, to its stakeholders and also to its employees.”
Buterin was too busy working on Wild Apricot and raising two kids to invest in the Ethereum ICO, not to mention, “frankly I also had very little money.” But, he soon realized his son’s invention was becoming a big deal and, of course, grifters tried to capitalize on the famous family name. Buterin says during the ICO boom in 2016/2017, numerous projects tried to onboard him as an adviser.
“I would read the white paper and I was, like, ‘Guys, this makes no fucking sense. This is just a piece of crap. And basically, all that you’re saying is that you think it’s a good opportunity for you to raise some money, right?’”
“So, I am happy that I did not get involved in any of these crappy projects.”
Nevertheless, over the years he’s been drawn further and further into the crypto world, he enjoys attending conferences, mentoring and investing in the crypto space, and he founded the blockchain education platform Blockgeeks in 2016.
“I’m very curious about things and I could sense quite soon after Ethereum was invented that yes, this is going to be a really big technological revolution,” he says.
“And when I encounter things like that, I try to learn more about them.” He adds further: “There are a few things that I got really interested in and I learned a lot of things like human psychology and spirituality, AI and psychedelics and blockchain, they’re things that are of really significant magnitude of impact.”
“I could sense that it’s not just a really powerful technological idea, but this is an idea which has a very powerful, emotional and visionary aspect.”
While he is thoughtful and serious throughout our interview, on Crypto Twitter he also allows his more lighthearted side to shine.
“One of the energies that is really big in me is the energy of being silly. And that’s also true about Vitalik. So, we always resonate with the same kind of stupid jokes and whatnot,” he says:
“I can freely share my silliness on Twitter now because I’m not concerned that some people will look at me and say things like, ‘This guy’s so fucked up.’ I’m like yeah of course I’m fucked up, who isn’t?”