Styopa Likhodeev, Berlioz’s flat mate and director of the Variety theater, wakes with a terrible hangover. The narrator tells the reader that there has been something strange over the last couple of years about this particular apartment, no. 50 in a building on Sadovaya Street—a number of its various lodgers have been disappearing. The housekeeper suspected “sorcery” to be the cause, before she, too, went missing. Soon after, Berlioz and Styopa moved in with their wives.
Bulgakov’s description of the goings-on at apartment no. 50 cut close to the bone in terms of what he could get away with writing. The disappearances are clearly indicative of state-sponsored exile and murder under Stalin’s regime but can’t be explicitly stated as such. The idea that sorcery is to blame here actually hints at the clandestine operations of the secret police, who are an unseen, almost supernatural, presence in the novel.
Styopa, suffering under the weight of his headache, tries to call out for Berlioz to bring him aspirin. He opens eyes, shocked to discover a strange man in his room, dressed in a black and wearing a beret.
Like Pontius Pilate, Styopa has a headache. There is a gentle suggestion that this might be a side effect of being in the presence of Satan (Woland). That said, it might also just be a result of the indulgent behavior of a man enjoying his position as the head of the theater.
The stranger explains that he has been waiting for an hour for Styopa to wake up—apparently the two men had arranged to have a meeting. “Here I am!” says the stranger. Styopa remembers nothing of the sort. The stranger tells Styopa that the only cure for his hangover is to take “like with like”—to drink some more vodka. Styopa looks around the room, amazed to see that the stranger has prepared a tray with bread, caviar, mushrooms, and vodka.
The reader rarely sees Woland in transition between two places; instead, he is more likely to just appear. Styopa is understandably shocked to see an unknown man in his room. Though seemingly a fairly throwaway comment, perhaps Woland’s suggestion that Styopa take “like with like” is a hint at the motivations of his overall project—to use deception, manipulation and dishonesty to highlight how these traits are already operational in society.
Memories of the night before start to return to Styopa as he eats the breakfast and drinks the vodka—but none of them chime with the stranger that he sees before him. Sensing Styopa’s confusion, the stranger announces who he is: “Professor of black magic Woland.”
Woland presentation of himself as a practitioner of black magic highlights his use of spectacle in fulfilling his mission. He plays on people’s fears, but also enjoys the idea that they might explain strange events away as mere “magic” (i.e. tricks).
Woland proceeds to recount the previous day’s events for Styopa. Apparently, Woland had visited Styopa and agreed a contract for seven performances at the Variety theatre. This meeting, says Woland, was arrange so that they could go through the details. Woland had arrived to find Styopa asleep and, rather than wake him there and then, sent out the housekeeper, Grunya, to fetch breakfast for Styopa.
Woland takes advantage of Styopa’s fragile state of mind to re-write events that have already happened, mimicking the authoritarian tendency to do the same.
Styopa asks to look at the contract. When Woland produces the document, Styopa is amazed to see his signature on there, alongside that of the Variety findirector,” Rimsky. Woland’s signature is on there too, verifying his receipt of ten thousand roubles.
Styopa finds it hard to argue with the sight of his signature on a contract, gesturing to the importance of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
Styopa decides to telephone Rimsky to check if what Woland says is true. Rimsky confirms that Styopa had indeed approved and signed the contract yesterday, and adds that the posters for the shows are nearly ready. As Styopa turns to look in the mirror, he notices a tall man (Koroviev) wearing a pince-nez that seems to disappear suddenly—and a black cat.
With Rimsky confirming Woland’s account of the day before, Styopa is forced to believe that the error is his. This is part of an overall pattern of Wol’nd's, which uses official bureaucracy to bring about his fantastical aims. The two characters Styopa notices are Koroviev and Behemoth.
Styopa calls out to Grunya to ask what the black cat and the tall man are doing in the apartment. Woland responds, saying they are with him, and that he has sent Grunya off for a vacation. The two new figures are now in Styopa’s bedroom. Styopa can’t believe his eyes: the huge black cat seems to be drinking vodka and eating mushrooms from the tray. Woland reassures him—this is his retinue.
Grunya, like the apartment’s previous inhabitants, has been “disappeared.” Behemoth’s indulgence in food and drink is subtly reminiscent of the preceding scene at Griboedov’s. Woland does not use aggressive tactics to manipulate events, instead destabilizing his targets’ minds and instilling them with fear.
The tall man with the pince-nez talks with a goatish voice, telling Styopa off for drinking too much and abusing his position in aid of “liaisons with women.” A fourth character appears: a short, broad-shouldered man, “with a bowler hat on his head and a fang sticking out of his mouth … and with flaming red hair.” This man carries on the other’s line of discussion, saying he can’t understand how Styopa “got to be a director.”
Until this point, the reader has had little sense of Styopa’s own wrongdoings—if any. Koroviev’s comments show that the gang’s targeting of Styopa is directly linked to his own behavior (as was Berlioz’s). Essentially, it boils down to Styopa being a self-serving individual who, like the Griboedov writers, abuses his state-endorsed position. The new character is Azazello.
Suddenly the cat shouts “Scat!” Styopa feels a knock on the head and loses consciousness, thinking that perhaps he is dying. But he doesn’t die; instead, he wakes up on a jetty in Yalta, a far-away coastal town. Styopa asks a stranger where he is; he passes out when he hears the answer.