The death of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny deprives President Vladimir Putin's opponents of their most formidable leader and the man who, for some, embodied hope of a better future in Russia.

The Russian prison service said Navalny, 47, collapsed and died on Friday after a walk at an Arctic penal colony, a statement his allies and wife could not confirm.

Navalny had been by far the most prominent opposition leader since coming to international prominence during street protests in 2011, and some supporters had believed he would eventually walk free and become Russia's leader.