Dmitry (Dima) Buterin, avid supporter of Ukraine, serial entrepreneur and father to Vitalik
Dmitry Buterin has always been outspoken and prone to using humour to make his point. He has lived through great change in his native Soviet Union before relocating to Canada in the 90s. There he has openly criticized the brain washing of the old Soviet era and increasingly the dictatorship of Valdmir Putin. It has not earned him many friends back in Russia where even high school peers condemn his views as traitorous. In fact, what is interesting when speaking with Buterin is that he is not nationalist or even jingoistic at all. At one stage I ask him who is his tribe and his answer is: “Humanity is my tribe.”
This thread of uniqueness runs through our conversation. At the end, I suddenly realise this is the gift or the legacy Buterin has given his son, an ability to view things in new and innovative ways. There are no set nations, cultures or even people in Buterin’s worldview but a series of individuals all rubbing along in their own little bubble. Perhaps the birth of Ethereum hinges on everyone and everything being unique.
Growing up in the old Soviet Union created some very definite memories for Buterin. He remembers the hypocrisy and the poverty.
“The state owns everything and provides its citizens with jobs, housing and healthcare. It sounds like a paradise. However, everything was of extremely poor quality and it was impossible to live in those conditions. The state does not care about individuals, except for perhaps the handful at the very top.”
Buterin remembers being five years old in kindergarten when a joke was made about Lenin and he was absolutely clear that this joke was being made about a sacred cow and how he felt the sheer terror.
“We were all held together by a tissue of lies. Lies that we worked. Lies that we were paid. Lies that we weren’t stealing to feed our families. Everyone needed a garden to grow vegetables just to survive.”
There were also gapping inequalities in the name of communism where some people would train and study to become teachers or doctors but they paid significantly less than a factory worker or laborer.
“The system kept on breaking down. Shops might have some basics like canned fish, but items like toothbrushes would come and go. Toilet paper was often not available with people using newspapers. By the time I was a teenager I could see through the lies.”
In order to get into university or to go up the value chain, young people were expected to join the Youth Communist Party and Pioneer Movement.
“These were all feeders into the Communist Party but I could see the system had started to fall apart and while my high school teacher persuaded me join, I actually sold my Youth Communist party membership card as a souvenir a few years later for $5 in Prague.”
The hard part was the loss of savings, the currency collapsing and people losing their jobs and their livelihoods. People were wiped out when the state apparatus no longer employed them working in factories that produced goods that no one needed.
On the flip side, Buterin was excited with the thought of being able to travel and to watch foreign TV.
“Before the collapse, it was a crime to watch a foreign film and neighbours might report you and you could end up in prison. Now there was a window of freedom – something new being born out of that corpse.”
Buterin laments that there was barely ten years of freedom before organized crime and a new form of state apparatus choked off the green shoots and he believes the new party is worse than before, while noting that Putin has been in power possibly longer than anyone else. Buterin expresses his opinions strongly, comparing the treatment of activists against the war with Ukraine unfavorably with those who participate.
“This is where I get most of my grief and my old friends say I am being paid to say terrible things about the regime.”
When asked if this upbringing, living though the old Soviet Union and witnessing its collapse before relocating to the west, has marked him, Buterin replies in the negative.
“Every human being is unique. We all have our own particular family, environment and upbringing. Even siblings and classmates brought up in similar environments are all unique. There is no label.”
Buterin embraces his newly adopted Toronto, not least for its multicultural melting pot of nationalities, cultures, ethnicities and religions all coexisting in the same place. It is also where he is raising his two daughters, aged 12 and 15, neither of whom are overawed by their big brother Vitalik nor likely to join him in tech invention. The elder has a talent for art, the younger is just discovering herself and Buterin is in no hurry to push them out into the world.
“They are both unique human beings at a unique point of time.”
Katya and Misha Buterin
So now I question how someone from the old Soviet Union has embraced capitalism so easily, exiting at least three businesses successfully to be retired at fifty. There was no concept of entrepreneurism growing up, everything was done by the state. However, Buterin fell into entreprenurial like activities through necessity. His parents had lost all their savings in the collapse of the regime and while education was free, living expenses were not. Buterin and a number of his friends took upon themselves to buy up old Soviet trinkets and sell them in Prague, then part of Czechoslovakia.
Buterin was studying software engineering at university but when he became father to Vitalik he needed to earn money while still a student. He worked for a bank and then an American consultancy helping companies in Moscow. With two colleagues he set up a small business and found it agreed with him. Shortly afterwards he moved to the West and began his entrepreneurship in earnest.
While it might seem obvious in hindsight that Buterin was always destined to live in the West, it was more coincidental than planned. A love of foreign languages and a very open emigration policy, especially for software engineers, in Canada, made the move easy and the rest is history.
As the father of the father of Ethereum, it might be expected that Buterin drove the interest early to his son, but in fact Bitcoin largely left Buterin cold. He could see it was an interesting technology but it was Vitalik that dragged Buterin into the sector.
“At the start Bitcoin only resonated as a cool technology and I could not imagine the implications. It was only as I moved more into a libertarian mind frame that I could start to see its use in terms of politics and society.
It was at this stage that I asked Buterin if he had found his tribe in the world of cryptocurrencies and he replied: “Humanity is my tribe.”
He pointed out that there are all kinds of people in this space, some pretty awesome ones, but there are also some pretty rigid communities.
“Bitcoin doesn’t interest me as much now – the community is too rigid. My personal belief is that technology has to evolve. The world is constantly changing and evolving and so too must technology.
“I learnt a lot from the beginning watching the messy, crazy, disorganized, decentralized process and there was a lot of beauty that came out of that.
“At the same time, I compared it with big centralized systems – such as the state and the church – but they are all incredibly fragile, depending on the leaders at top. Well, sometimes the leaders are smart, but sometimes they are scared, sometimes angry, sometimes reactive. It’s like a human body, this very complicated, incorrect, sometimes fragile and beautiful, overall a messy system.
“To me, decentralized systems work much better because they are based on human consensus. And if you look around the world these systems are evolving, nothing stays the same and some appear to be working better than others. This to me is beautiful, this messy life, finding better ways to work in the flow of life.”
As a retired father of two teenage girls, he is very busy. He also dabbles in AI art and finds technology endlessly fascinating. He also mentors entrepreneurs. And he is learning Turkish, a language that is not easy to master despite his interest.
He is enjoying a playfulness, perhaps not available to the young man growing up in the old Soviet, and still reads extensively, mostly books on philosophy or at least books that try to explain what it means to be human.
“To be honest, I have my own very unique peculiar perspective that very few people can understand or even fathom what the fuck I am talking about. All I know is that I am less attached to knowledge than I was. Everyone’s perspective is unique and I have very different views from my friends, my son, and other people but that’s perfectly fine because I am not them.”
With that in mind, I finally ask what advice he might give to a mentee or even his sixteen-year-old self, and he answers.
“It’s all basically bullshit because there is no one answer. Sure, read business books and look for models that might suit, but everyone is unique and the advice would not suit. There is no right or wrong way. I would have been disciplined but what about creativity, what about sensitivity, and opening your heart to your life? There is no one way, every way is unique.”