"Part of good government is making sure we're creating a space for civil society," Obama said.

The president cited his own past to align himself with the work of the human rights activists.

"I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO [nongovernmental organization] in the international community," he said. "I got elected president by engaging people at a grassroots level."

The decision to meet with the activists in not unprecedented — Obama also met with human rights leaders in 2009 — but comes amid a period of heightened tension with the Kremlin.

In addition to condemning the country's anti-gay laws, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been at loggerheads over a potential military strike on Syria, as well as the Kremlin's decision to offer temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former Defense contractor responsible for leaking details of top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs.

It also comes amid reports of increased anti-gay violence in Russia.

President Obama said earlier this summer that he did not "think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics," but said he hoped gay American athletes would win medals and change minds.

"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there," he said. 

Putin brushed aside criticism of the laws in an interview earlier this week with The Associated Press.

"I assure you that I work with these people. I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields," Putin said. "We have absolutely normal relations, and I don't see anything out of the ordinary here."