MOSCOW -- A half-century of often brutal rule from Moscow came to an end yesterday when what remains of the Soviet Union followed the example of some 50 other countries and officially recognized the independence of the three Baltic republics.
The just-created State Council took only 30 minutes of its first meeting in the Kremlin to acknowledge the restored statehood of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the latest fruit of the accelerated political change following last month's failed Soviet coup.
For Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, including many living in the United States and other countries, Soviet recognition of the independence of their little nations completes a long, emotional battle.
The fight began in 1940, when two decades of independence was cut off as the Red Army occupied the three countries as part of a secret deal between Josef V. Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
Until about two years ago, the Soviet leadership publicly insisted that the Baltic peoples had voluntarily ousted their leaders and welcomed Soviet rule in a series of coincidentally timed "revolutions."
In fact, hundreds of thousands of Baltic patriots who resisted the Soviet takeover were executed, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia. Lithuanian partisans kept up scattered resistance to Kremlin control well into the 1950s.
Soviet violence against the Balts escalated again this year, with bloody attacks by Soviet troops on Lithuanian television facilities, Latvian police headquarters and border guards in all three republics. The attacks appear to have been ordered by the same leaders of the Soviet KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs who unseated President Mikhail S.Gorbachev for three days in August.
Yesterday, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis welcomed the news in his parliament building -- still surrounded by barricades built to deter Soviet attack -- as "a very joyful and positive action, not only for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but also for the Soviet Union and the entire international community."
Mr. Landsbergis, Latvian President Anatolijs V. Gorbunovs and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel were invited to speak on the revamped Soviet television evening news.
People received the news on a chilly, rainy day in the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius with quiet satisfaction but without major rallies or other public displays, local reporters said.
Independence brings not only joy but also deep economic worry to the three states, which together are roughly comparable in size and population to Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. They have been dependent on cut-rate Russian oil, and their economies have been completely merged with those of the other Soviet republics.
They must also cope with large, Slavic ethnic minorities, some of whom strongly opposed independence and resorted to rallies and strikes to protest it.
Janis Dinevics, head of the dominant People's Front fraction in the Latvian parliament, told The Sun that his group would prevent any attempt to take vengeance against Russians.
"On the barricades in January [guarding the Latvian parliament] we heard Russian spoken as well as Latvian," he said. "We cannot now forget those who stood with us."
Mr. Dinevics said the most serious danger now facing the Baltic republics "is in ourselves. The main danger is that 50 years of totalitarianism changed our thinking, that people will demand the resolution of every problem overnight."
With the shriveling of central Soviet authority after the coup, it was clear that there was no longer the political will to resist Baltic independence or to use Soviet troops to prevent it. The United States established diplomatic relations with the three states Monday, joining a stampede that began as soon as Mr. Gorbachev made it known that he no longer would fight it.
Mr. Gorbachev deliberately kept the Baltic independence question off the agenda of the Congress of People's Deputies that closed Thursday, apparently fearing that parliamentary conservatives would block recognition.
He persuaded the Congress in effect to transfer its powers to new structures dominated by the republics. One of those new bodies, the State Council, which includes republican leaders under the chairmanship of Mr. Gorbachev, settled the Baltic question as the first item on its agenda.
At the same time, the State Council declined to discuss the independence demand of Georgia, where the Ossetian and Abkhazian ethnic minorities violently oppose secession and controversial President Zviad Gamsakhurdia faces growing popular opposition. Mr. Gamsakhurdia responded by recalling his representatives from Moscow.
Many issues remain to be negotiated between the Baltic republics and the Soviet Union -- or possibly between the Baltic republics and the other Soviet republics, first of all Russia.