Shortly after news of Berlioz’s death gets around, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, the chairman of the tenant’s association for the Sadovaya Street apartment complex, finds himself inundated with tenuous claims to Berlioz’s rooms (a study, living room, and dining room). These are from tenants who live elsewhere in the building and come in the form of “pleas, threats, libels, denunciations.”
Berlioz’s vacant apartment is instantly sought due to the shortage of housing supply caused by Soviet policies. This therefore makes Nikanor’s position one of considerable power, as he is the appointed citizen tasked with deciding who can live there. Woland and his gang, of course, have other ideas.
Nikanor heads up to Berlioz and Styopa’s apartment, which is no. 50 and on the fifth floor. Using his own set of master keys, he lets himself in. He removes the seal from the study and is amazed to see a tall man sitting at Berlioz’s desk, wearing a checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, and a pince-nez.
The seal was intended to keep people out of the room but is obviously no match for Woland and his entourage. The man sitting at the desk is Koroviev, whose identity Bulgakov is careful not to reveal immediately.
Nikanor, perplexed, asks the man if he has an “official person.” He replies elusively: “What are official and unofficial persons? [...] Today I’m an unofficial person, and tomorrow, lo and behold, I’m an official one!” He reluctantly gives his name as Koroviev and identifies himself as the “interpreter for a foreign individual who has taken up residence in this apartment.” He explains that Mr. Woland, “a foreign artiste,” has been granted use of the apartment during the week of his scheduled performances at the Variety Theatre.
Nikanor, as a faithful servant of state bureaucracy, sees people as either official or unofficial. Koroviev answers with a glib philosophical point which highlights the stupidity of the distinction. Nikanor is used to doing things by the book, which Koroviev delights in exploiting and teasing. The description of Woland as a foreigner is designed to heighten Nikanor’s anxiety.
Nikanor protests that Koroviev should not be sitting in a deceased man’s study and, furthermore, that he received no notice from Styopa about his loan of the apartment to Mr. Woland. Koroviev tells him to look in his briefcase, in which Nikanor is staggered to find a letter from Styopa confirming what Koroviev is saying.
Koroviev pulls a similar trick to Woland’s in chapter 7, using Nikanor’s own officiousness against him. By conjuring the letter and using his powers to place it in Nikanor’s briefcase, Nikanor no longer has legitimate grounds to debate Woland’s occupancy of the apartment. Woland and his gang delight in using people’s cowardly reliance on bureaucracy as a device for their trickery.
Nikanor demands to see the foreigner, but Koroviev objects that he is currently training the cat; Koroviev offers to show Nikanor the cat, “if you like.” The officious Nikanor states that foreigners ought to stay in the Metropol hotel, but, according to Koroviev, Woland doesn’t want to and is as “capricious as devil know what!”
Koroviev invokes the devil, mimicking the tendency amongst the Moscow inhabitants to do the same. Of course, Koroviev is making a little joke to himself, knowing that Woland is as capricious as the devil because he is the devil. The Metropol was a hotel expressly for visiting foreigners.
Koroviev points out that the tenants’ association will be handsomely rewarded for letting Woland stay. Tempted by the promise of money, Nikanor calls the “foreign tourist bureau,” who readily inform him that they have no objections to Woland’s plans.
Koroviev works on Nikanor by appealing to his worst instincts. In fact, one interpretation is that the targets of Woland and his gang generally align with the seven deadly sins—this one being greed. Nikanor goes through the bureaucratic motions but Woland has already manipulated the machinery of officialdom in his favor.
Koroviev calls out to Woland to agree the rental price and tells Nikanor to ask for a vastly inflated sum. Nikanor then grinningly signs a contract for a huge amount—five thousand roubles—and counts the cash. He then can’t help but ask for complimentary tickets to the Variety show, to which Koroviev promptly agrees. Koroviev then thrusts extra money into Nikanor’s hand, who protests that taking bribes is “severely punishable”; Koroviev points out that there are no witnesses and that Woland will be offended if he refuses.
Greed starts to get the better of Nikanor as his sense of duty gives way to an opportunity for personal gain. Koroviev also pressures Nikanor by appealing to Nikanor’s desire to maintain decorum, suggesting his “client” will be offended if the bribe is rejected. Meanwhile, in the face of profit, Nikanor looks past the rules of Soviet society.
Nikanor heads back to his apartment, briefly considering how it was that Koroviev gained access to Berlioz’s study when it had been sealed. Meanwhile, Woland tells Koroviev that he doesn’t want Nikanor, “a chiseler and a crook,” to come to the apartment anymore. Koroviev immediately acts on the instruction, phoning to report Nikanor for being in possession of “foreign currency” (which is in the ventilation duct, he says).
This is often the pattern of Woland’s schemes: appeal to the worst part of an individual’s character and then expose it for all to see. Strangely, then, Woland is starting to seem like a slightly twisted dealer of justice. Soviet citizens were not allowed to have foreign currency, creating a black market in currency exchange. Nikanor, for his part, doesn’t know that the currency is foreign.
Sitting down to a hearty meal, Nikanor’s peace is interrupted by the arrival of two men who accuse him of harboring foreign money. They check the ventilation duct and find the foreign money, before leading Nikanor away, as he protests incoherently about Koroviev. He is astonished to find no contract, letter from Styopa, rental money, or theater pass in his his briefcase. As he is led away from the apartments, one of his neighbors observes his arrest with great delight.
Though it isn’t made explicit, these shadowy men that take Nikanor away are probably the secret police. The briefcase is a symbol of bureaucracy and official status—in fact, citizens would often keep their identity papers in there and carry it with them, in case of an encounter with the authorities. Nikanor’s empty case, then, symbolizes his sudden loss of official status—confirming Koroviev’s earlier quote that being an “official person” is true one day and not the next.