Moscow - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday paid tribute to Nelson Mandela, comparing him to Mahatma Gandhi and Soviet dissident and Nobel prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

“Without doubt he was a great friend of our people,” Putin told reporters as he visited the South African embassy in Moscow to honour the memory of the anti-apartheid icon and Russia's “great friend”.

The Russian strongman signed a condolence book and called Mandela “a great humanist” who can be compared to Gandhi and Solzhenitsyn, who was jailed by the Soviet authorities.

“It was our country - the Soviet Union - that in the most active manner supported South Africa and other countries in Africa in their fight against racial segregation, their fight for justice and democracy,” Putin told reporters.

A memorial service was being held on Tuesday in South Africa for the anti-apartheid icon, with close to 100 world leaders attending.

Russia was to be represented at the ceremony by Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the parliament's upper house. - Sapa-AFP