Obituary: Sian Thomas
Tuesday 06 July 1993
SIAN THOMAS was too big for England. She needed the passion, space and divine madness only Russia could give.
From childhood she bridled at restrictions. Politicians, sexists, the KGB and Fashion would all become targets for her exuberant iconoclasm. Nor would her creativity be restricted as a teacher, cartoonist, graphic artist, film-maker, adventurer, gourmet and fashion anarchist - in short, she was a leader without trying to be.
She studied Russian at the age of 11 because no one else wanted to. In 1974, she and her Welsh father, Jim, and English mother, Jean, wandered the back roads of Russia in a caravan finding food and avoiding the KGB in a way no other foreigners could have done. After coming down from reading PPE at Jesus College, Oxford, she taught graphics in London - when she was not on the picket line or a woman's march. She and her equally energetic grandmother Nell travelled together from Cuba to Outer Mongolia.
Sian Thomas's wry sense of humour as a graphic designer and cartoonist led her to doing television titles for appropriately independent programmes such as The Cold War Game, Never Say Die and Cinema from Three Continents. Inevitably Thomas ended up researching and making programmes herself.
During the last seven years of her life, she would criss-cross the Soviet Union a dozen times, be on the first Soviet tank out of Afghanistan (for the film Afgantsi, 1989), be run out of Uzbekistan for uncovering KGB corruption, bring back previously untold stories from Arctic labour camps and make the most moving film on the August 1991 coup attempt I have seen.
The 10-minute film, for Russian television, came from within the crowd in front of the 'White House' - people, like Thomas, who were prepared to die if necessary because they would no longer be told what to do by cynical old men. While other journalists told of troop movements, Thomas's report in the Independent during the coup captured the emotions and voices of the street which would not be silenced.
During the turmoil of the last years of the Soviet Union, Sian Thomas met her husband and closest friend, Sasha Vlasov. The warmth Sian spread so freely among her friends came to rest on Sasha.
Sian Thomas was growing tired of the egos and hubris which are television. She was moving towards a new, unknown challenge when she joined the Peking-to-Paris bicycle ride meant to raise awareness of ecological disaster areas. Next to telephones, her great passion was her bicycle. As ever, she began the trip as an outsider. Within days she was running the show.
So it was that on 24 June, outside a small town in Siberia, Sian Thomas once again led the others, her long red hair flying in the wind as she rode down the narrow, potholed road. She died on that road, hit by a careering car. She lived to the last second with a life-force many of us feel was simply too strong to extinguish.
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