Swedish home with cold war bunker attracts buyers as Russia fears rise

<span>Inside the private bunker in Ljungby, Sweden.</span><span>Photograph: Josefine Stenersen/The Guardian</span>
Inside the private bunker in Ljungby, Sweden.Photograph: Josefine Stenersen/The Guardian

Above ground, the former school building – now a private home – fits with the typical scene of southern Sweden. Surrounded by farmland and red wooden houses common in this part of the country, it has a flagpole outside and looks like a large, but not especially extraordinary, house.

But below one of the outbuildings – which looks like a guest suite – of this 16m-krona (£1.2m) sprawling property in Ljungby, Småland, an unexpected world unfolds.

An (initially) unassuming stairway, labelled “mancave”, reveals a 1.25-metre thick concrete roof, chunky orange metal doors and an operating airlock, behind which lies a fully functioning cold war bunker.

The 490 sq metre space across two floors comes complete with its own kitchen, bar, bedrooms, hygiene areas, power plant and carbon filter ventilation and is designed to withstand a direct hit from a 500kg aerial bomb.

Completed in 1970 as a civil defence command post – amid a wave of bunker and shelter building across Sweden to protect from feared nuclear attack by the Soviet Union – it has been privately owned since it was sold off by the local municipality in 2002 and is now run as a private event space.

But since going on sale last week, it has attracted interest from across Sweden and Europe, including from those who, two years into the war in Ukraine, are looking to acquire their own private wartime bunker in case of escalation across Europe.

“This is a whole unique possibility,” said the estate agent Micael Steneland as he showed the Guardian around the property, which boasts a “bunker and spa facility”.

“There are very few who have thought of this before. They have probably thought and Googled ‘private shelters’ and then suddenly this one comes up – they don’t even have to build it.”

Earlier this week the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said Nato countries risked provoking nuclear war if they sent troops to Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron had raised the possibility, which was quickly rejected by several western countries, including the UK, Germany and Sweden.

But despite this, Swedish preparations for war reaching Scandinavia are well under way.

Sweden started building shelters during the second world war, but most were constructed during the cold war. In 2002, with the cold war threat long gone, it stopped, thinking they would no longer be needed, and its network of 64,000 public shelters to accommodate 7 million people became largely obsolete (although they still theoretically remain functional).

But in the last two years, since the invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s subsequent Nato membership – expected to be completed within days – growing fears of a Russian attack on Swedish soil have prompted a surge of interest in such shelters.

Sweden’s civil contingencies agency (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap, or MSB), whose responsibilities include civil defence and protection, has been increasing inspections of its shelters, which are supposed to be usable with just 48 hours’ notice. They received 100m kronor (£7.7m) this year from the government, which has been taking a heightened interest in the subject and in January warned its population to prepare for the possibility of war, to go towards checks and preparation.

Estate agents say they have seen increased interest in properties with bunkers and shelters built into rocks and underground in recent months. Meanwhile, companies have sprung up marketing private nuclear attack-proof shelters and personalised at-home shelter construction for the rich.

The cold war bunker in Ljungby, a two-hour drive from Gothenburg and Malmö, could accommodate 44 people with water, electricity, heat and clean air for two to three months, said owner Kenneth Clausen, 64. While not himself a “prepper” – part of a global movement of people preparing for apocalyptic crisis – the entrepreneur had slept overnight in the bunker, which he decorated in an eclectic array of styles, and was fascinated by its history. He flicked through a diary from the bunker’s construction, a process that took just under a year, which showed handwritten notes from the first day of construction on 2 December 1969.

Most of Sweden’s network of shelters, indicated with an orange and black triangle sign and mapped online, are under residential buildings, schools and sports halls and often double up as bike sheds or storage areas. But there are also larger-capacity shelters in big cities, such as Katarinaberget in Stockholm, also a car park, which can accommodate 16,000 people in an emergency.

The nearby Pionen, a cold war bunker used by the internet service provider Bahnhof, claims to be able to survive a direct hit from a nuclear weapon. In the event of war, it would be used to protect and operate critical private and public IT services.

Anders Johannesson, the MSB’s unit manager for shelters, said awareness of civil protection in the event of attack had risen markedly in Sweden, particularly among owners of buildings with civic shelters. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine its website crashed and he had to hire more staff to deal with inquiries.

“What the shelters were planned for were the second world war and then came cold war and nuclear,” he said. “Now when we see what Russia can do in Ukraine and what they threaten, it’s time for our defence and civil defence to prepare so that if the worst happened we would be able to survive.”

While he acknowledged growing interest in private shelters, they were expensive and not safety tested by the MSB, he said.

Lars Hansson, who runs Bunkertours, a publisher and travel operator, said the government’s warnings over war preparedness had been an “eye-opener” for many in Sweden, but he was not convinced that the shelter network was ready to be put into use with the appropriate personnel within 48 hours.

“There’s no one who is prepared like they were 40 years ago,” he said. Also, with an increased population – now 10.6 million – and new shelters not having been built, he was doubtful of capacity.

The psychologist Per Carlbring, a professor at Stockholm University, said Sweden’s increased interest in war shelters was in many ways surprising, seeing as the county had no recent direct history of war or conflict. But, he added: “Seeking safety in shelters reflects a deep-seated desire for control and security in an unpredictable world.”