In the early 1930s over 91% of agricultural land became "collectivized" as rural households entered collective farms with their land, livestock, and other assets. The sweeping collectivization often involved tremendous human and social costs. Recent historians have estimated the death toll in the range of six to 13 million.
After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, peasants gained control of about half of the land they had previously cultivated, and began to ask for the redistribution of all land. The Stolypin agricultural reforms between 1905 and 1914 gave incentives for the creation of large farms, but these ended during World War I. The Russian Provisional Government accomplished little during the difficult World War I months, though Russian leaders continued to promise redistribution. Peasants began to turn against the Provisional Government and organized themselves into land committees, which together with the traditional peasant communes became a powerful force of opposition. When Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917, he promised the people "Peace, Land and Bread," the latter two appearing as a promise to the peasants for the redistribution of confiscated land and a fair share of food for every worker respectively.
During the period of war communism, however, the policy of Prodrazvyorstka meant that the peasantry was obligated to surrender the surpluses of almost any kind of agricultural produce for a fixed price. When the Russian Civil War ended, the economy changed with the New Economic Policy (NEP) and specifically, the policy of prodnalog or "food tax." This new policy was designed to re-build morale among embittered farmers and lead to increased production.
The pre-existing communes, which periodically redistributed land, did little to encourage improvement in technique, and formed a source of power beyond the control of the Soviet government. Although the income gap between wealthy and poor farmers did grow under the NEP, it remained quite small, but the Bolsheviks began to take aim at the wealthy kulaks. Clearly identifying this group was difficult, though, since only about 1% of the peasantry employed laborers (the basic Marxist definition of a capitalist), and 82% of the country's population were peasants.
The small shares of most of the peasants resulted in food shortages in the cities. Although grain had nearly returned to pre-war production levels, the large estates which had produced it for urban markets had been divided up. Not interested in acquiring money to purchase overpriced manufactured goods, the peasants chose to consume their produce rather than sell it. As a result, city dwellers only saw half the grain that had been available before the war. Before the revolution, peasants controlled only 2,100,000 km² divided into 16 million holdings, producing 50% of the food grown in Russia and consuming 60% of total food production. After the revolution, the peasants controlled 3,140,000 km² divided into 25 million holdings, producing 85% of the food, but consuming 80% of what they grew (meaning that they ate 68% of the total).