As a Nigerian-Ukrainian child commuting between Nigeria, where I lived most of the year, and Soviet-era Ukraine every summer, I had two impressions of the city of kyiv – l one had to do with the circus and the other with ice cream. Both were delightfully experienced by me there, but neither had anything to do with the books.
It was probably because our final destination was Byrlivka, an agrarian village outside kyiv where my maternal grandparents lived and where I spent my days running around the cornfields, reconnecting with old friends and, sometimes swimming in muddy ponds.
As I grew older, I began to take note of the books that lined the shelves of my aunt’s apartment in kyiv where we always stayed briefly after arriving from Nigeria. Some of the books were bound in dark blue leather and engraved with gold lettering.
What was inside them? Poetry and fiction, a bit of science fiction, I was told, written by Soviet writer Alexsey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. I had heard of Leo Tolstoy, the famous writer of the same last name, but even though they were distant relatives, their works seemed to be miles apart.
Eventually, I moved to the United States to attend Calvin University in Michigan. At that time, two events accelerated my rediscovery of kyiv and its illustrious writers: Ukraine had gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and I discovered the wildly imaginative work of the writer of Ukrainian origin Mikhail Bulgakov. Who could resist the big, fast-talking black cat in “The Master and Margarita”? Who doesn’t love satire mixed with social commentary in fiction?
When I visited my family in kyiv during my university studies, I brought along a copy of Bulgakov’s novel, as well as the sage advice of an English professor. Go to Bulgakov’s old house in kyiv, he says, and if you’re lucky like me, you’ll see a black cat behind the house after a visit. We laughed at the absurd coincidence. Or was that to be expected?
Bulgakov’s Yellow House, now designated a museum, was located on Andriivs’kyi Descent, a sloping cobbled street that was buzzing with activity when I arrived that year. Dozens and dozens of artists lined one side of the street with their paintings and crafts. Hawkers sold beautifully painted jewelry boxes and wooden religious icons which were in great demand.
Musicians played instruments and sang songs as the magnificent domes of St. Andrews Church shone in the distance. I was captivated by what seemed to me to be an outpouring of artistic energy in a country that opened up to the world after independence.
About halfway down the street, I took the suggested tour of Bulgakov’s house with a tour group and learned, among other things, that Bulgakov had been a doctor and had written two books before “The Master and Daisy”.
One of them, a novel called “The White Guard,” caught my eye and still resonates with me today, weeks after the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine. Set in kyiv in 1918 after the October Revolution, the novel depicts a city besieged by various warring armies. The Turbin family at the center of the novel live in a house similar to the one I visited, and kyiv is rendered in rich, immortalizing detail through the terror of war.
My own impressions of the city, whether or not they still involve circus exploits, remain as vivid as ever, and in times of peace – for which I am desperate – when I visit kyiv with my young daughter, I have the intend to return to the Bulgakov Museum where at first I had no luck seeing this black cat. Superstition aside, maybe seeing a black cat is still in my future.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based writer and critic.