Members of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration gathered in Moscow city centre to hand over a petition to the education ministry urging it to tighten controls over migrants from the Caucasus living in university halls.
They also demanded that the government cancel provisions encouraging students from other ex-Soviet nations to enter Russian universities.
Some reports say that about 100 activists were detained by police while other accounts say more than 200 were arrested.
Police were deployed in large number around the rally site, but several dozen nationalists were allowed to hold the rally - a soft approach by the Russian authorities who usually move quickly to disperse unsanctioned demonstrations.
The Movement Against Illegal Immigration received attention earlier this month when a wave of racial mob violence in the northern town of Kondopoga was triggered by a restaurant fight that left two local residents dead. Angry crowds, blaming local Chechens for the killings, burned the restaurant and stores owned by Chechens and other migrants from the Caucasus region, and demanded their eviction.
Alexander Belov, the movement's leader, visited Kondopoga and urged authorities to take tougher action against migrants. Some people, including Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Moscow-backed prime minister, blamed Belov for inciting the mob violence - an accusation he has denied.
While authorities sought to downplay the racial element in the Kondopoga violence, it has raised fears that similar rampages could spread to other Russian cities where increasingly aggressive nationalist groups target people from Russia's Caucasus provinces and neighboring ex-Soviet nations.
Russia has seen a marked rise in xenophobia and racism in recent years, with a series of attacks on foreigners, Jews and dark-skinned migrants from the impoverished Caucasus region and ex-Soviet Central Asia.