(CNN) -- President Barack Obama met with leaders of several Russian social activist groups Friday, an event that likely touched on the sensitive subject of gay rights in the nation amid tensions over Syria.
Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law passed by parliament that bans the public discussion of gay rights and relationships where children might hear it. Violators can be fined and, if they are foreigners, deported.
Obama, who has advocated gay rights and same-sex marriage, has said that "nobody's more offended than me" by the Russian law.
In connecting with the nine activists, Obama spoke about his own foray into politics.
"I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community," he said. "I got elected president by engaging people at a grass-roots level."
He further called the activists' work "critically important" to open society.
"I'm very proud of their work," Obama said. "Part of good government is making sure we're creating a space for civil society."
Critics say the Russian law is so vague that anyone can be prosecuted for wearing a rainbow T-shirt or holding hands in public with someone of the same sex.
At the event Friday in Russia, Obama met with representatives of groups that support a range of causes, including media freedom, protection of the environment and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
The controversy over the law is one of several disputes between the United States and Russia, including the question of possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow's decision to shelter National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
Obama and Putin met briefly Thursday at the Group of 20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, shaking hands and exchanging a few words. Officials said the two leaders could have a longer meeting on the margins of the event.
Obama had previously canceled a summit meeting with Putin scheduled around the G20 event after Russia gave temporary asylum to Snowden, whom the United States wants to prosecute for leaking documents about NSA surveillance programs. It said at the time that considerations on a variety of issues went into the decision to cancel the meeting.