Berlioz’s uncle, the industrial economist Maximilian Andreevich Poplavsky, heads from his home in Kiev to Moscow, having received a perplexing telegram apparently from Berlioz, paradoxically stating that he, Berlioz, has been run over by a tram. It also tells Poplavsky that the funeral will be on Friday 3:00 p.m. He has come to Moscow not to pay his respects but to try and acquire Berlioz’s apartment as inheritance.
The telegram is a prank by one of Woland’s gang—Berlioz couldn’t have sent it posthumously of course. Poplavsky is the uncle that Woland confused Berlioz by mentioning in the first chapter. People in the Soviet Union were not allowed to own their own property, with homes allocated by state-approved chairs of tenants’ associations (e.g. Nikanor Bosoy). Poplavsky, then, is part of the clamor for Berlioz’s newly vacant apartment.
Poplavsky heads to the management office on Sadovaya Street that looks after Berlioz’s building. There, he asks an anxious-looking man if he can see the chairman. Getting nowhere, Poplavsky heads directly to apartment no. 50.
The anxious-looking man is probably part of the tenants’ association, intimidated by what has happened to Nikanor Bosoy.
After ringing the doorbell, Poplavsky is let in, but it’s unclear who by—all he can see is an “enormous black cat” sitting on a chair. Koroviev comes into the hall from the study. Learning that Poplavsky is Berlioz’s uncle, Koroviev pretends to be distraught at the theater director’s death, tears streaming down his face.
Koroviev intentionally mimics the emotions that the reader might expect Poplavsky to be showing, playing on Paplovsky’s insincerity and self-interested reason for coming to Moscow.
Poplavsky asks if Koroviev had sent the telegram, sure that it could not have been Berlioz posthumously. Koroviev points to the cat, saying “he did!” Behemoth admits sending the telegram, asking “what of it?” Poplavsky can’t believe he’s talking to a cat; Behemoth asks, “I believe I asked in good Russian?” and then demands to see Poplavsky’s passport.
Behemoth delights in acting casually when people first see him, allowing him to feign offence when they are understandably baffled by his being a cat. Behemoth plays up to the importance of official documentation in Soviety society by insisting on seeing the passport.
Behemoth looks at the passport, insults Poplavsky and rescinds his invitation to Berlioz’s funeral. He summons Azazello, the red-headed man with the yellow fang, and asks him to “see off” Poplavsky. Azazello promptly whacks Poplavsky with a “huge roast chicken,” sending Poplavsky (and the chicken) tumbling down the stairs. Running for dear life down the rest of the stairs, Poplavsky passes a melancholy man in a suit heading the other way.
There’s no clear symbolism behind the roast chicken, it just makes for an especially undignified way to be attacked.Poplavsky’s literal downfall is a result of his own selfish desires, keeping with the tendency of Woland’s gang to draw the worst out of people. Generally speaking, though, he gets off quite lightly.
This other man is Andrei Fokich Sokov, barman at the Variety. He has come to apartment no. 50 to complain that that the bar’s takings are down on account of the “fake” money Woland used in his séance. Hella, naked, putrid-smelling, greets Andrei at the door, before seeing him into Woland’s room. Woland is sitting by the fire.
The audience members spent the free money from the show at the bar. Hella has the characteristic smell of the undead (as Varenukha did in chapter 14).
On learning that Andrei is the Variety barman, Woland lambasts the food served at the Variety buffet, specifically the sturgeon. Andrei, slightly confused, says that the sturgeon is of “second freshness,” which Woland thinks is a “nonsense” idea.
Woland’s complaint about the food is in part a satirical comment on the Griboedov’s preoccupation with fine dining. “Second freshness” is typical of the Soviet tendency to assign grades; Woland thinks food is either fresh or it’s not. This also represents the way in which Woland likes to disorient people, shifting the conversation onto a topic of his choice.
Andrei then tries to raise the question of the money. Woland invites him to sit down, but the stool collapses, spilling red wine all over Andrei, who declines the suggestion that he should take his trousers off. Frighteningly, an owl flies in and lands on the mantlepiece.
The collapsing stool and wine spill further intimidate Andrei, hinting that he is in the presence of a great supernatural power.
Woland offers Andrei a drink and asks if he would like to play dominoes or cards. Andrei declines both, leading Woland to say that “there’s something not nice hidden in men who avoid wine, games […] Such people are either gravely ill or secretly hate everybody around them.”
Woland subtly drops a hint about what he is going to tell Andrei before the end of the chapter. Woland likes games because they involve winning and losing, which can be viewed as proxy versions of good and evil—games need winners and losers to work, just as the world, in Woland’s view, needs good and evil.
Andrei again tries to ask about the money, referring to Woland’s séance. Woland tells Andrei a secret: “I’m not an artiste at all, I simply wanted to see the Muscovites en masse, and that could be done most conveniently in a theatre.” Andrei explains that the audience had spent the notes used in the séance, receiving change from the bar in real currency.
Woland is extremely candid here, giving Andrei a true account of the reasoning behind of the Variety show. Whereas the audience thought they were coming to see him, he was coming to see them and all their faults.
Woland asks Andrei if the Muscovites are crooks, to which Andrei admits that some of them are. Woland then asks if Andrei is a poor man, and what he has in savings; Koroviev calls outs from the other room that Andrei has “249 thousand roubles” and a small amount of gold. Woland says this is “not a great sum,” but explains that it doesn’t matter—Andrei will die in nine months from liver cancer.
Andrei’s answer to Woland is an honest one. The treatment of Andrei is perhaps the strongest example of a character being treated evilly without seeming to have done anything to deserve it. Andrei is a humble man of modest means; but by the looks of it has been condemned to die by Woland. Alternatively, Andrei was dying anyway—Woland simply has foreknowledge.
Koroviev comes in and instructs Hella, the naked woman, to see the disoriented Andrei out of the apartment. As he leaves, Andrei returns to get his hat, which he forgot in his confusion. Descending the stairs, Andrei’s hat doesn’t quite feel right; suddenly it turns into a black kitten that scratches his head, before going back up to no. 50.
Another prank by Behemoth, who has pretended by Andrei’s hat.
Worried by Woland’s prediction, Andrei heads right away to a nearby doctor, who happens to be a specialist in liver disease. Professor Kuzmin, the doctor, thinks it’s unlikely that Andrei has liver cancer, but sends him to a neurologist in order to get an examination of his nervous condition. Andrei insists on paying Professor Kuzmin and leaves.
Andrei, unlike Berlioz, doesn’t dismiss Woland’s prediction out of hand. Enough happened in the room—and at the theater—to make him respect and fear Woland. Kuzmin’s referral of Andrei to a neurologist is another example of characters trying to explain Woland and his actions away.
Later on, Professor Kuzmin notices that the money left behind by Andrei has turned into wine bottle labels. He complains to his secretary before returning his room to find a black kitten on his desk where the labels were, drinking from a saucer of milk.
Andrei has obviously used the supernatural money from the Variety. It’s not clear whether this was a deliberate deception or not. The black kitten is Behemoth.
To Professor Kuzmin’s shock, a sparrow flies in and lands on his desk, while a nearby gramophone starts playing a foxtrot all by itself. The sparrow appears to dance to the music, before laying a dropping in the doctor’s inkstand. It then flies to Kuzmin’s graduation photograph and smashes the frame with its beak.
Like the bird at the palace in the Pontius Pilate narrative, this one is probably Woland too. Though Bulgakov doesn’t state this explicitly, the presence of Behemoth and Azazello here makes it more than likely. There’s no indication that Kuzmin is any way morally compromised, showing that sometimes Woland and his gang just like to have fun in creating terror and chaos.
Professor Kuzmin makes a phone call to order some leeches. They are brought impossibly quickly by a nurse with “a man’s mouth,” dead eyes, and a “single fang”—Azazello. Later, a mustachioed doctor friend of his comes to reassure him that what happened was “all nonsense.”
Woland and his gang enjoy nonsense; in fact, it is one of their tactics. They create events that seem impossible to believe, making it difficult for their victims’ accounts to be believed.
The narrator addresses the reader, saying the time has come “for us to go on the second part of this truthful narrative. Follow me, reader!”
The narrative tone varies a lot throughout the book. This is one of the rare instances when the narrator directly addresses the reader, here heralding the end of Book 1, indicating that something is fundamentally different about Book 2. As Margarita is about to make her appearance, perhaps this is an indication that her character has something that the Moscow people in Book 1 lack: courage.