TALLINN, ESTONIA, SEPT. 8 -- For decades they had sung in subjugation -- and later in defiance -- carefully worded anthems and folk songs that consoled them and taunted their Soviet occupiers.
Today it was different. More than 100,000 Estonians gathered in a park by the stormy Gulf of Finland to sing and cry together, and celebrate the end of an era.
"We are free at last of a shabby and stinking socialism, the cheating, boasting socialism that ruled us by force," said Rein Jarlik, a member of Estonia's Popular Front independence movement.
It was the first public rally here since the Soviet Union recognized the Baltic states' independence two days ago and the largest and most emotional one since November 1988, when a national song festival drew one-third of the country's population and helped launch the freedom drive that Estonians call "The Singing Revolution."
For many in the crowd, today's rally was the first pause in the dizzying two weeks that saw a failed coup in Moscow vault the Baltic states into independence from the Soviet Union.
As recently as a month ago, Estonia's once vigorous independence drive had seemed stalled, and even optimists found it hard to imagine how the Baltic states would maneuver past the seemingly immovable obstacle of Kremlin hard-liners. Those optimists said independence was at least two years away, and probably more.
The strain of watching a column of 100 Soviet armored vehicles move into the capital, Tallinn, in the early hours of Aug. 20, and then roll out again two days later, also had taken an emotional toll. That, plus growing economic hardship and an independence movement that has splintered into at least four political parties, have caused many Estonians to wonder whether anyone would come out in the unseasonably cold wind and rain to sing today.
But the crowd was large. The usually unflappable Estonians seemed surprised and pleased by all of the visible emotion.
"For 50 years we lived in total absurdity, and followed totally stupid rules. But now the Estonian people are free again," Hagi Shein, a leader of the independence movement, told the crowd. "Time will heal our wounds, and people must be able to forgive, but we must never forget."
Throughout the afternoon, there was singing, but it was tinged with melancholy. "These were the songs of our imprisonment. In the years ahead, we will sing them in a more joyful way, and the conductor's voice will not be quavering," said a tearful Venno Laul, director of the national conservatory, stuffing a hankerchief back into the pocket of his formal white jacket. "It is a celebration today, but I'm also remembering all the pain."
The pain was the product of nearly five decades of occupation, 60,000 deportations, tens of thousands of deaths, forced conscription, gulags, corruption and a Kremlin policy bent on obliterating any trace of the first Estonian republic, which lasted 20 years between the two world wars.
"I was an 11-year-old boy when it all started in 1940," said Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, who sat in the front row of the bowl-shaped field. "I was standing next to my house watching columns of Soviet army vehicles move down the road. I remember thinking I would wait for the day those columns would leave, and do everything to see them gone."
Ruutel said complete independence for Estonia has not yet been achieved. That would happen when the last of 60,000 Soviet troops have left. "I hope we can get that far," he said. "That would mean real freedom." Estonian leaders expect to begin troop negotiations with the Soviet Union soon.
Today's rally was held at the National Song Festival Grounds, where a choral concert and sing-along have been staged every five years in Estonia since 1869. That was about the time Estonian nationalism began to stir after centuries of German, Swedish and then czarist Russian domination.
During the 50 years of Soviet occupation, the festival became as much a political as a musical event. Thousands of choral singers from every school and church in the country, as well as the numerous professional choirs, would pack the grounds. Tens of thousands in the audience would sing along. If the price was mumbling through a few compulsory Soviet Communist Party tunes about the glories of socialism, so be it.
"It was like a national referendum every five years to which only the Kremlin was deaf," Jarlik reminded the crowd. "The song festival was the one thing that kept us alive as a nation all these years. Whatever else happened, we could come here and stand next to each other and know we were Estonian."
So they stood to sing the national anthem, "My Homeland, My Love, My Joy." They sang a second, unofficial anthem, "My Homeland Is My Love." There was a third song, a folk song: "I Can't Keep Quiet, I Have to Sing, My Homeland Is So Dear To Me."
To the ear of a Westerner, the lyrics may have seemed much alike and heavy on the idea of fatherland. The crowd was predictably lacking in members of Estonia's large Russian minority, whose future citizenship rights are a matter of great concern here.
But to Estonians who had lived to see their white, blue and black Estonian flag again, each song was a jewel, and entirely fitting. Said Estonian journalist Eve Tarm, "Without this feeling for this little piece of land, Estonia, we would have been gone with the wind a long time ago."
Reuter news agency reported from Vilnius, Lithuania:
Tens of thousands of Lithuanians gathered at one of their nation's holiest Catholic shrines today and turned a traditional religious festival into a celebration of independence.
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis attended the outdoor Mass 155 miles northwest of the capital. It was by far the biggest celebration in Lithuania since the Soviet Union recognized the Baltic state's independence Friday. The service was broadcast live on radio.