As a Nigerian-Ukrainian child shuttling back and forth from Nigeria, where I lived most of the year, to Soviet-era Ukraine every summer, I held two impressions of the city of Kyiv — 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 books.
This was probably because our final destination was Byrlivka, an agrarian village outside Kyiv where my maternal grandparents lived and where I passed my days running through cornfields, reconnecting with old friends and, occasionally, swimming in muddy ponds.
As I grew older, I began taking note of the books that lined the shelves in 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 etched with gold lettering.
What was inside them? Poetry and fiction, some science fiction, I was told, written by the Soviet writer Alexsey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. I'd heard of Leo Tolstoy, the famous writer with the same last name, but although they were distant relations their works seemed to be miles apart.
Eventually I moved to the United States to attend Calvin University in Michigan. By then, two events accelerated my reacquaintance with Kyiv and its illustrious writers: Ukraine had gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and I discovered the wildly imaginative work of Ukrainian-born writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Who could resist the large, fast-talking black cat in "The Master and Margarita"? Who doesn't enjoy satire mixed in with social commentary in fiction?
When I visited my family in Kyiv during college, I brought a copy of Bulgakov's novel, along with sage advice from an English professor. Go to Bulgakov's old house in Kyiv, he said, and if you're in luck like I was, you'll see a black cat behind the house after a tour. We laughed at the absurd coincidence. Or was it to be expected?
Bulgakov's yellow house, now designated a museum, was located on Andriivs'kyi Descent, a sloping cobblestone street that bustled with activity when I got there 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 demand.
Musicians played instruments and sang songs as the magnificent domes of St. Andrews Church gleamed in the distance. I was enthralled by what felt like an outpouring of artistic energy in a country opening up to the world after independence.
About halfway down the street, I took the suggested tour of Bulgakov's house with a group of tourists, and learned, among other things, that Bulgakov had been a medical doctor and wrote two books before "The Master and Margarita."
One of them, a novel called "The White Guard," caught my attention and still resonates with me today, weeks into the horrifying Russian invasion of Ukraine. Set in Kyiv in 1918 after the October Revolution, the novel depicts a city under siege by various warring armies. The Turbin family at the novel's center lives in a house similar to the one I toured, and Kyiv is rendered in rich and immortalizing detail through the terror of war.
My own impressions of the city, whether they still involve circus feats or not, remain as vivid as ever, and in a time of peace — for which I am desperate — when I visit Kyiv with my young daughter, I plan to return to the Bulgakov Museum where I initially had no luck seeing that black cat. Superstition aside, perhaps a black cat sighting is still in my future.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based writer and critic.