This is part two of an extensive interview with Dmitry Buterin, looking at his relationship with Vitalik and his insights as a father. For Part 1, which detailed his own fascinating life story, click here.
Dmitry Buterin recalls the day in 2013 when his son Vitalik showed him the Ethereum white paper at their home in Toronto.
“He‘s like, ‘Hey Dad, I was working on this thing, are you interested to look at it?’” the Chechyna-born Toronto resident says in his idiosyncratic accent. Vitalik had dropped out of university a year before to travel the world and, within a month of arriving home, he‘d written the first draft.
Even though Dmitry famously introduced his son to Bitcoin two years earlier, he admits many of the details went right over his head. But, he understood the wider vision.
“One of his skills is he can take something very very complex and he can explain it really well,” he says.
“So, even though I was only superficially knowledgeable about Bitcoin and all the crypto stuff, when I read this document I was like, ‘wow, this makes a lot of sense to me.’ So, I was quite excited.”
Satoshi Nakamoto intentionally limited the complexity of transactions on the Bitcoin network and Vitalik‘s great realization was that if he designed an evolution of Bitcoin in a Turing complete programming language, it could potentially offer every conceivable digital service via the blockchain, from the stock market to building decentralized cooperatives. Dmtiry says the invention of Bitcoin had been a “huge leap” and that the next leap could only be built atop of it.
“For me, it really resonated as a very simple analogy, right?” he says, “Because I observed the growth of internet, it started with static HTML websites and it was all interesting, but very limited.”
He adds: “And yes, it‘s very complicated and risky and there are security issues and whatnot. But, you can do anything.”
Vitalik struggled as a public figure
Although Vitalik had the far sighted vision that turned into a cryptocurrency worth half a trillion dollars, explaining the concept and forging a coalition of like-minded people to help develop it forced him to become a public figure — a role that did not come naturally. “That was actually quite difficult for him,” Dmitry says.
“I could see that and he struggled, especially the first couple years because he is a person who has a, if you will, very kind and sensitive nature — well meaning. And he‘s like, ‘Oh now I’m trying to do this and why are all these people building these websites which ridicule me?‘”
But, he adds that the challenges helped Vitalik to grow in emotional intelligence.
“Through all the public speaking and interacting with so many people and all the traveling that he has done, now the world can see much more of the Vitalik that I know and his family knows: This very kind, sensitive and fun guy versus just kind of some smart guy with a lot of smart ideas talking about blockchain and stuff.”
Back to the beginning
Now a successful businessman who semi-retired in 2017 after the SaaS business he founded, Wild Apricot, was sold, Dmitry says it was obvious from very early on that there was something unique and special about Vitalik. Dmitry, being of a philosophical bent, would no doubt add that there‘s something unique and special about every child, but Vitalik was in a category of his own.
His birth in 1994 had been something of a happy surprise. Dmitry was a 21-year old student at the time living in Kolomna, Russia with Vitalik‘s mother, Natalia Amelineas, as the former Soviet Union fell apart. While Dmitry had himself been a bright child who had learned to read by three and a half, he says Vitalik began reading “quite a way before that.”
But, great gifts come with their own issues, too, and Vitalik took longer than usual to become comfortable with speaking.
“It was kind of obvious that he had some really interesting capabilities,” says Dmitry.
“But also, every child who has very powerful brain has all kinds of other things like nervous tics and things like that. So, there are a lot of things that to deal with — their communication is different.”
When Vitalik was six, Dmitry, his new partner Maia and former wife Natalia all moved to Canada in search of a better life.
The move to the other side of the globe threw the young Vitalik into a strange and unfamiliar territory. Until then, Vitalik had been mostly raised by Natalia and Dmitry, along with her parents.
“They helped out a lot, but they were adamant about not sending him to childcare. So, when he arrived to Canada, he had to go childcare in different language and whatnot. So, it was a big and somewhat painful transition for him.”
this is so weird, cringy and silly, so lovely! https://t.co/foJ4qHbFDc
— Dima ButΞrin (@BlockGeekDima) November 29, 2021
Fast track to success
Vitalik‘s potential was noticed early on, and by the third grade, he‘d been placed into a class for gifted children where he began to develop his interests in mathematics, programming and economics. The young Buterin was able to add three digit numbers in his head “ten times” faster anyone else. People started to refer to him as a math genius by grade five or six.
A seminal Wired profile from 2014 described him as autistic wunderkind who had learned to speak fluent Mandarin in just a few months: “Which is bullshit,” notes Dmitry. It “took much longer.” Co-founder Joseph Lubin (later of ConsenSys fame) described Vitalik at the time as “a genius alien that had arrived on this planet to deliver the sacrosanct gift of decentralization.”
Like other highly intelligent people, Dmitry says Vitalik understands the world in a different way to the average person, which affects how they interact and socialize.
“When you‘re smart, your mind is much better at creating models of everything and forecasting different things,” he says. “And, that works quite well about a lot of things. But, it doesn’t work that well with humans:”
“You‘ve become way too reliant on your thinking mind and not so much on your sensing mind. Your thinking mind, however powerful, will mess up because human emotions are infinitely more complex than with any kind of analytical model you can imagine.”
Despite this challenge, he says Vitalik started to come out of his shell when he began attending a private high school called Abelard School.
“I think that he really blossomed when he went into high school,” he says. “He went to this little private school that made a big impact on him, he really opened up.”
But the Vitalik we now know was really born online. He may be called a Russian-Canadian on Wikipedia, but he was raised as a product of internet culture.
“He actually learned how to connect with people online and build the connections and whatnot,” he says. “And, that‘s kind of when he entered the whole crypto and Bitcoin space.”
“He actually developed a lot of relationships online with other enthusiasts,” says Dmitry. “And that‘s another way we use social skills, just in a very different way than in face to face.”
Enter the Bitcoin
Dmitry is reluctant to take credit for his son‘s successes, but he certainly played a key role by introducing his son to Bitcoin. He first tried and failed to get his son interested in hacking, which he describes as “how do you take a complex system and make it do something else that it wasn’t designed to do?”
Part of the father-son dynamic was that whenever Dmitry got interested in something, he liked to try and pass it on to Vitlaik.
“Vitalik also has a very curious mind. So, all of my life, especially as he was growing up, I‘ve been just trying to feed him a lot of interesting things and see what resonates.”
Dmitry himself learned Bitcoin after hearing about it on a cybersecurity podcast in 2011.
“I‘m like, oh, wow, this definitely sounds like very interesting technology that has some potentially big implications. But, I cannot say that, at the time, I had really much clarity about how big the implications of that were,” he says.
As a self professed “techno optimist,” Dmitry has always been fascinated by technology and feeds his range of interests — from AI and futurism to libertarianism and spiritualism — through voracious reading.
One formative influence was the scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who “wrote a bunch of books about the progress of technology and made a bunch of very optimistic forecasts about the future.”
“He was one of my biggest influences in my early 20s. When I read his books, I actually gave them to Vitalik as well. Recently, I ended up getting in touch him through some friend and he actually sent some of his books that I read with Vitlaik 15 to 20 years ago. He sent signed copies to me, which was nice.”
When it comes to hacking, Dmitry explains that he failed to get Vitalik interested in the concept, as other things were more appealing. He passed copies of the Hacker Quarterly ‘2600’ Magazine to him, as well as books by the famous ‘90s convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick, who spent two years on the run from the FBI.
“He didn’t really get interested that much in hacking as such, but the cryptography really resonated with him. And you know, he read a whole bunch of books about cryptography and the math behind it. So, when I told him about Bitcoin, it was a very fertile object for his mind to chew on, if you will.”
While his 17-year-old son initially dismissed the concept of a currency with no intrinsic value being doomed to fail, he came back to it after quitting his World of Warcraft obsession, when he needed something else to occupy his time.
Being a penniless student, he couldn‘t afford to buy Bitcoin or mine any, so he began writing posts for a blog for 5 BTC per article. This led to a gig as a head writer for Bitcoin Magazine, which he juggled while studying five advanced courses at the University of Waterloo and working part time as a research assistant for a cryptographer.
It was as a journalist that he covered a Bitcoin conference in San Jose California in May 2013, where the Winklevoss Twins and others talked up this new tech revolution as something that could be as significant as the birth of the internet. Excited by the potential, he decided to embrace the opportunity with both hands and drop out of college at the end of the semester to pursue it full time.
Dad, I‘m dropping out
Dmitry recalls the day Vitalik visited to tell him of the plan.
“I actually do remember that day when he came from university. Actually, his mom was in our house visiting, so when he came in all three of us were here, myself, Maia and Natalia. And then he mentioned, ‘Hey, guys, I‘m actually thinking of dropping out,’” he says.
“And it was really interesting. All three of us had a very similar reaction that we supported him because we all knew that he‘s a very bright wonderful young adult and, if he drops out, he will be totally fine.”
“So, he dropped out and went for the whole trip around the world and got involved with a bunch of things.”
Dmitry met Vitalik‘s step mom Maia in Russia in “1995 or 1996.” The pair got married in 2004 but separated a couple of years ago. He says she played a big role in Vitalik‘s upbringing.
“Maia was a huge influence on Vitlaik because he was growing up with the two of us mostly and then he was seeing his mom regularly whenever she was able to visit Toronto,” he says, adding that she later moved nearby, so they saw each other often.
Dmitry explains that it was essentially as if Vitalik had three parents.
“Pretty much, it‘s nice. I think it was a couple of years ago when we were having some kind of family dinner, and Vitalik was here. He stood up and said that he is really grateful that in his life he has so many awesome people close to him and he said ‘I have my mom and I have you Maia,’ I don’t remember the words he used. But, you know, he was very genuine and very sincere.”