The activists focused on local issues but also accused the Kremlin of stifling free speech, silencing dissent and depriving them of a free and fair political process ahead of December parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote.
Authorities had not given permission for the rally in a central square in Nizhny Novgorod, saying a demonstration could only take place far from the city center. Hundreds of riot police in full gear cordoned off the central square.
Still, organizer Natalya Morar said, several hundred protesters managed to hold a short rally - dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree - near the central square until police dragged them into buses that took them to police stations.
An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of protesters taken into custody by police and some beaten with truncheons. The photographer was briefly detained by officers, who later released him, saying there had been a mistake.
President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, has given strong hints that he would pick a favored successor. Opposition groups have accused the Kremlin of further consolidating control over the country's political life ahead of elections to make sure its opponents stand no chance of winning.
State-controlled television channels made no mention of the rally in their newscasts throughout the day.
Oksana Chelysheva, another organizer and rights activist, said her group had received complaints from hundreds of people heading to the rally who said they were blocked by police from entering the city center.
Morar said hundreds of activists had been pulled off trains and buses and detained on their way to the rally.
She said several dozen journalists, including foreign reporters, were also detained.
Among those arrested was Marina Litvinovich, an aide to liberal opposition figure Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned fierce critic of Putin.
Litvinovich told The Associated Press that she was detained, to prevent her from protesting, as she was driving into the city, on the grounds that her personal car was on a list of stolen vehicles. She was released hours later, only to be arrested a second time for the same purported reason.
Morar said two other organizers detained ahead of the rally were in custody on suspicion of terrorist activity.